Long-term strategy buoys Hamilton as Celtic seek immediate answers

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Hamilton were 1-0 winners at Celtic Park on Sunday
Ali Crawford (right) scored the only goal at Celtic Park

Both managers called for a sense of perspective following Hamilton's 1-0 victory at Celtic Park on Sunday.

Alex Neil did not want the extent of the achievement - the club's first away win over Celtic in the league since 1938 - to define it as a unique event when he is so confident of the players' abilities and the purpose of Hamilton's play bringing sustained progress this season.

Ronny Deila was more concerned with reducing the impact of a negative result. He sought solace in statistics, since the home side created a series of chances that were spurned by strikers whose aim and composure was askew. Even so, the reaction of frustrated fans was a reminder that expectations at Celtic do not provide much room for leeway.

How is the game best surmised? Nobody was wholly surprised that Hamilton won, or that Celtic are still flawed.

Deila's side lacked ruthlessness up front and remained vulnerable in defence. On the balance of chances created, Celtic ought to have won but then Hamilton can legitimately point out that Dougie Imrie might have scored early on and Louis Longridge could have presented a clear chance to Tony Andreu in the second half rather than shooting wide.

The outcome confirmed that Hamilton have carried their form, confidence, organisation and self-belief of last season into this campaign, and that Celtic remain a work in progress.

It is too early for outright condemnation of Deila but he needs a run of results to establish a period of authority.

Celtic did not appoint the Norwegian to merely repeat the work of Neil Lennon, his predecessor. The club wants to push the limits of what their overall strategy might achieve, so recruited a manager with a reputation for maximising performances and player development.

It will take time for Deila to implement all of his strategies but there is also an obligation on him to make Celtic capable in the meantime.

Celtic spurned several good opportunities to score on Sunday
Celtic spurned several good opportunities to score on Sunday

Hamilton's performances are the result of a long and sustained strategy of youth development and playing with a certain style and philosophy. Five of the players who started on Sunday are graduates from the club's youth set up, while two more came on as substitutes. Only three starting players were older than 26.

Neil and his assistant Frankie McAvoy regularly attend under-20, under-17 and under-15 matches, while Neil started his coaching career at the club with the youth age groups so had worked with many of the players already before he took charge of the first-team.

When the club won promotion by defeating Hibernian in the play-offs, the message from the executives and directors was clear: the strategy would not change.

Neil has benefited from this but also his own strongly-held belief that his players are capable of taking the game to any Premiership opponent.

Hamilton did not stockpile time-served top-flight players during the summer and that was down to the conviction that some of the players approaching their breakthrough into the first-team are talented enough.

Deila is in a different part of that cycle of development. He wants his team to play a higher tempo pressing game and made some pointed remarks about the fitness of his players and for old habits to be discarded.

He is right, in the sense that the Scottish game is still too enthralled in the drinking and laddish escapades of previous eras. The benchmark is how the best teams and leagues in Europe are developing players, not fuzzy memories of Kenny Dalglish having liked a black pudding supper on a Friday evening.

Premiership campaign so far...
Hamilton AcademicalCeltic

Nonetheless, Deila will begin to sound like a hollow preacher if his team does not find the means to put together an impressive run. Fans will lose patience, too. He has to combine his medium-term aims and beliefs with a short-term focus on results.

After all, the two are not mutually exclusive but it might mean sacrificing in the short-term some of his principles to play in a way that better suits his resources.

Celtic have the resources and players to win the title. Deila has only been in charge since the summer and there is time enough for the team to develop its old habit of being dominant, at least on the domestic stage.

Even so, Dundee United and Aberdeen are capable of stringing victories together and at this stage it looks as though Hamilton will be able to maintain their form, even if a couple of defeats might disrupt their mood of optimism.

Hamilton can revel in a period of carefree ambition. Problems have accumulated for Celtic and Deila needs to find solutions quickly, particularly the soundness of his defence and the dynamic among his attacking players.

He came to Scotland with a low-profile, which means that there was no reputation for him to rely upon in times of scrutiny. He needs to build trust and make a persuasive case that he can construct a period of achievement at Celtic.

Hamilton's win was a reminder of the worth of continuity but also of a clear-headed and long-term planning.

Is the Celtic job too big for Deila? It is too early to make a definitive judgement but his team was not too big for Hamilton to bring down.