Recently it has felt like we are constantly being bombarded with the assertions that ‘we no longer have leaders’. More and more we are hearing pundits on TV and radio bemoaning the fact that, when the going gets tough, there are less and less people ready to lift their head above the parapet and make a difference. While this opinion is centred around a kernel of truth, you only have to look at the state of our political leaders for confirmation, it is not a problem that is blighting life on the field inside Parkhead.
Brendan Rodgers, leading the side with an unshakable, relaxed authority, has engineered a climate at the club that has brought out the best in his players and in doing so allowed them the confidence to display their personalities. In a squad that is brimming with youthful exuberance, it is a quality that cannot be overrated. Armstrong, Sviatchenko, Šimunović, Dembele, Tierney and Rogic all look capable of altering the flow of games that are in danger of petering out through a combination of talent and force of will. While this is a promising situation to find ourselves, there will always be the need for more experienced players to set an example both in a physical and vocal sense.
The best example comes in Celtic’s last league game, the 2-1 win inside Ibrox. The first half hour was largely abysmal. The Hoops were uncharacteristically poor in both the accuracy and the tempo of their play. It looked as though the players were convinced that their superior talent would be enough to win the game and that the application of effort would not be required. This all changed around the 24th minute mark, when Captain Scott Brown hurtled into a challenge and picked up a much-deserved booking. This seemed to galvanise the players around him injecting them all with a sense of urgency. As we all know Celtic turned the game around to extend the lead at the top of the table to a whopping 19 points.
Scott Brown is the on-field leader of the squad, the sheriff who constantly swaggers across the midfield, as though football pitches were dusty Appalachian towns under his jurisdiction.
Like all good sheriffs, Brown has a reliable deputy ready to back him up and lead by example whenever the skipper is absent. That man is Mikael Lustig. The Swede has always gone quietly and efficiently about his business, in the way all good fullbacks do. What has become more and more identifiable is the passion and desire he shows when clad in green and white. It’s been impossible to escape the numerous videos of the rangy Swede skipping and jumping with glee at the final whistle of big wins or at the scoring of crucial goals. The height and exuberance he gets on some of these celebrations would make Martin O’Neil jealous.
The steady stream of reliable performances, his tactical versatility and the calming aura he imbibes the squad with have contributed to a new contract that will tie him to Celtic Park until 2019. In an ideal world, Celtic, will use this time to fully integrate Christian Gamboa to the club and allow him time to complete an apprentice under the tutelage of the experienced Swede. This, presumably, was the idea when Saidy Janko was lured to the club. Time though, has shown the Swiss youth product to be at best erratic and at his worst the heir apparent to Efe Ambrose, alas without the heart-warming grin. The Costa Rican, while far from the finished article, is a marked improvement on Janko.
That though is a plan for the future. Lustig is still only 30 and thankfully now shot of the series of niggling injuries that have blighted his career. The next 3 years will hopefully show Lustig add to his 150 appearances, marshalling the left flank with his trademark authority, and all the while implanting the required knowledge, to young signings, needed to be successful at Celtic.
Good business all round.