In a one-off special, and due to a lack of updates, Celtic fan and excellent football writer Scott Fleming (@sfcalcio) has stepped in to the breach to consider Celtic’s unremitting hunt for the next Chris Sutton.
You can debate things on forums, scroll up and down Twitter, pore over broadsheet newspaper articles and listen to phone-ins, but sometimes it takes the wee old man in the pub to really provide clarity on a particular issue.
I watched this season’s SPFL curtain raiser between Celtic and Ross County at Kelly’s Bar on the south side of Glasgow. 2-0 up and cruising, the champions broke upfield in search of a third. The ball zipped between the members of Celtic’s midfield, a unit in which almost every single individual seems to be playing superbly well right now. Green and white shirts fanned out across the Parkhead pitch in perfect synchronicity, the mouths of the flag day crowd creeping open in anticipation of another celebratory roar. But then the ball landed at the feet of striker Stefan Scepovic.
“Well, that’s that fucked,” deadpanned said wee old man, to laughter and murmurs of agreement. I can’t remember the specifics of how the move petered out, but suffice to say, the old yin wasn’t wrong.
Scepovic arrived at Celtic just under a year ago, and has spent most of that time looking like THE quintessential transfer flop. It didn’t help that he appeared to have snubbed the club in favour of a move to Getafe, only to suddenly change his mind, but before the big Serb had even had time to pick out a peg in the Celtic Park dressing room he’d been gazumped in the hearts of the fans and the mind of manager Ronny Deila by fellow deadline day capture John Guidetti, who – with his Jack the lad persona, penchant for winding up those esteemed rivals from Govan and handy habit of, erm, actually scoring goals – proved a much easier player to love than the gawky, monosyllabic Scepovic. Even the moment that should have been his big breakthrough felt like a bit of a debacle, the £2.3m man netting his first goal for the Tic in a 2-1 Europa League win over Astra Giurgiu but missing an avalanche of other chances on the night.
By the midway stage of the campaign phoney Guidetti mania had bitten the dust (to paraphrase The Clash), but still Deila showed no inclination to pluck Scepovic from the Parkhead lost and found, instead entrusting the lone striker role in his beloved 4-2-3-1 system to Leigh Griffiths, who responded with a series of important goals and impressive performances.
Six goals in 24 appearances were the unflattering final statistics from Scepovic’s first season in Glasgow, but with a full pre-season behind him and reassuring talks held with Delia, many hoped that the former Sporting Gijon forward might finally come good this term, even with the increased competition provided by new arrival Nadir Ciftci to contend with.
I say ‘many’, what I mean is me and the handful of other oddballs like me who can be relatively unmoved by the deaths of majestic animals on nature documentaries, David Tennant’s report from an African hospital on Red Nose Day and all the other things that make normal people cry, yet find the sight of a professional footballer being a bit rubbish at his chosen profession unbearably sad. Watching Scepovic play for Celtic has at times felt like watching those videos people film of their cats doing goofy things like trying to leap through closed windows. Pitiful, yet strangely endearing.
The Ross County game was a case in point. With Griffiths going off injured early and Ciftci serving a six-game SPFL ban, Scepovic had a priceless opportunity. For 71 minutes plus stoppage time that precious lone striker position was his, with that wonderfully inspired five-man midfield to supply him with chances and 45,000 fans in attendance, brimming with new-season good cheer and ready to welcome the new Scepovic into their collective bosom. Only it wasn’t the new Scepovic, it was the same old one, with his knack for drifting through games anonymously and, when he does get involved in the play, killing hitherto promising moves stone dead.
I did start to wonder, however, as I watched him lumber around disconsolately, whether this really was a situation unique to Scepovic, and not part of a much more long-running problem at Celtic that he just so happens to be the latest victim of. Because he’s far from the only centre-forward we’ve seen looking – if you’ll pardon my French – like a bit of a spare prick at Paradise in recent years. In fact, the ‘sad striker shuffle’ has become something of a Celtic trademark. We’ve seen it modelled by Morten Rasmussen, Miku, Mo Bangura, Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki, to name but a few.
Now, the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the Celtic board’s policy when it comes to spending £1.5m or £2m on strikers from the continent has been debated at length elsewhere and is not something I intend to explore here, but it is interesting to note the physical characteristics these striking flops share. Almost all of them are 6ft or taller.
Celtic have had plenty of popular, successful targetmen on their books over the years. Even in the relatively short span of time I’ve been watching them play there’s been Chris Sutton, who managed 86 goals for the Hoops before going on to become the punditry equivalent of Vlad the Impaler, John Hartson, who bagged a whopping 101, and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. OK, big JVoH looked like a petrified tree in the middle of the penalty box during his third and final season in the east end, but maintained a respectable strike rate in the first two and played a key role in the come-from-behind title win of 2007-08.
During the Mogga, Lenny and Ronny eras that have followed though? None. And not for the lack of trying. One of Lennon’s most frequent press conference discussion topics was his squad’s lack of a commanding centre forward, an issue he tried and failed to remedy by recruiting Miku, Lassad, Balde, Pawel Brozek and Daryl Murphy. It’s an obsession, and a fruitless quest, that Deila seems to have inherited.
The presence of six-footers Scepovic and Ciftci in the squad hasn’t stopped Celtic being linked this summer with the likes of Michiel Kramer and Milan Djuric, strikers so tall you could reach down from the top row of the Jock Stein stand and slap them on the head if they fluffed a chance. Kramer, who scored 17 goals for ADO Den Haag in the Eredivisie last season, is 6ft 5, whilst Djuric, who netted only two for a woefully out-of-their-depth Cesena in Serie A, is 6ft 6.
But even if one of these targets was to agree to join Celtic and settled in better than the likes of Scepovic – two pretty big ifs – would there really be a place for him in a side as dynamic as Deila’s long term?
For some years now Celtic have been a passing side, not adverse to scoring from set-pieces and swinging the occasional cross into the box, but happier working the ball through midfield. That was the preferred style during Lennon’s tenure and there’s been even more of an emphasis placed on keeping the ball on the deck under Deila. Expecting a big lump of a centre forward to go into a streamlined young side like that and hit the ground running is like expecting a 200lb wrestler to be the star performer in a ballet troupe.
And that’s why signing Ciftci and picking him ahead of Griffiths in the Champions League qualifiers might not be as bad an idea as it seems. There are plenty of sceptics – myself included – who have doubts about Ciftci’s attitude and temperament, not to mention wider concerns about the ability of any striker bought from a fellow SPFL club to deliver at Champions League level (Tony Stokes, looking at you…), but there’s no doubting the Turk’s ability and intelligence, attributes that mark him out as a more well-rounded player than Scepovic, even though they’re exactly the same height. Yes, he’s big and strong, but with his awareness and confident use of the ball, Ciftci is arguably the closest thing to a conventional targetman that Celtic can afford to field without compromising their fluidity.
Celtic being Celtic, there are always going to be what ifs and ‘grass is greener’ scenarios, especially with no genuine competition for the SPFL title to speak of and no Old Firm derbies to distract ourselves with. And who’s to say what might happen before the transfer window closes, especially if Delia’s side secure the financial windfall that comes with negotiating the Champions League play-off round. But the myth of the tall, dark striker that’s going to sweep in and save the day has been a red herring for too long. For the sake of the manager’s sanity, the fans’ viewing pleasure and the self-esteem of poor sods like Scepovic, it’s best for the Hoops to knock their never-ending search for a targetman on the head, and move on.