I’ve been away again, in Central Ostrobothnia (Keski-Pohjanmaa). It was beautiful. Lucky me!
Stuart Baxter, head coach of the Finnish football team, has been involved in a somewhat embarrassing affair with Scottish football club Celtic FC, one half of the “Old Firm” of dominant clubs in Glasgow. Here’s how the story unfolded.
Neil Lennon, a former captain of Celtic, was appointed caretaker manager of the club in March of this year, after the previous manager, Tony Mowbray, had been sacked for poor results. He had only been asked to take over until the end of the season, but he won all four of his league games, impressing sufficiently to gain the job on a full-time basis in June.
Lennon’s first competitive game as manager proper was against Portuguese outfit SC Braga, in a qualifying round for the Champions League. Celtic gave a toothless display and went down 3-0.
Despite Lennon’s attempt to put a positive spin on the match, the result seemed to make the Celtic board of directors panic: they had made the decision to put a managerial novice in charge and were now very worried about his lack of experience. It would have been ridiculous to sack Lennon after one match, so they decided to bring in someone else to work alongside him, an old hand who could give him advice and act as something of a father figure. That someone was Stuart Baxter.
Baxter was contacted by Celtic and asked to work as a “consultant”, as Baxter himself described his new role. He gave a verbal agreement to Celtic and went public with it, without getting the permission of his employers at the Finnish Football Federation (Suomen Palloliitto). When rumours began to circulate that the federation were not going to approve the appointment, all concerned began talking about the role in much less formal terms – Baxter was not going to be employed by Celtic, merely provide advice to Lennon by telephone when he wanted it.
However, the performance director at the Finnish football federation, Kimmo Lipponen, then came out and announced that the federation were giving Celtic a straight “no” to Baxter becoming involved with them at all. Baxter was then forced into a U-turn, stating “I do not have any agreement with Celtic and it is not true that I have agreed on a role there. I am fully committed to my work with the Finland team.”
So, what should we make of this whole series of unfortunate events? The first thing to say is that it is embarrassing for everyone involved. Lennon has never wanted a “father figure”, and must surely now be questioning whether his employers have faith in him. The executives at Celtic appear to have panicked and disrupted their team’s pre-season. Baxter looks a fool for announcing an agreement with Celtic before he had permission to do so, and the Finnish Football Federation look like they have a dissatisfied, or even disloyal head coach.
I do not think this will have serious ramifications for Finland. Baxter has already proved his worth to the national team and will surely stay in his job until the end of the Euro 2012 qualification campaign. International management is very different from club management, in that it is only in focus a few times a year. There is plenty of time for small stories such as this one to dissolve away while the media are more interested in domestic football. Finland play Belgium in a friendly in one week’s time, and I expect this affair will go away quietly after that, particularly if Finland can secure a victory.
At a press conference yesterday, Baxter seemed a little annoyed with the media for creating such a big story out of this, but he said a few sensible things that should help to diffuse the situation. When asked how much he thought he would be in contact with Celtic over the course of the coming season, he replied: “I think that I would be a fool if my contact with Celtic over the next few months was to be more than with any other club. I don’t think my employer would like it, and I don’t think that my credibility would be served by having extreme co-operation with them. If it’s a few conversations now and again, then I can control it and I’ll have a few conversations. If I feel it’s becoming a role, then I’ll obviously steer clear. I don’t think I’m unintelligent in that respect, and I don’t think I’m insensitive to the feelings of the people around here.”
So, no serious harm done, or so it would seem. Over in Glasgow, though, the pressure will continue to mount on Lennon unless he can inspire Celtic to turn around their 3-0 deficit against Braga at home tonight. He has also been distracted by a transfer saga involving one of his wingers, Aiden McGeady. However, this blog is not the place to speculate on his future.
In other news, Baxter announced his squad for next week’s match against Belgium, to be played in Turku. It is available on the YLE website. Jari Litmanen’s international career continues, as does Sami Hyypiä’s, though the latter does not feature in this squad due to his heavy club schedule and Baxter’s wish not to overwork the 36-year-old.