SUCH has been the desperation of Celtic's season, certainly of the

latter part, that they are confronted with another of those

all-or-nothing matches. The Scottish Cup semi-final against Clydebank on

Saturday must be won if hope of salvaging something from the campaign is

not to die.

A tie against a team from the first division normally could be

approached by Celtic and their supporters in time-honoured fashion:

respectful noises about the merits of the opposition would be made while

thoughts of the Hampden final were kept in check. However, these are not

normal times for Celtic. Right now they are capable of losing to anyone.

At the end of recent matches manager Billy McNeill has looked agitated

and used words such as ''embarrassing'' and ''humiliating'' to describe

Celtic's work. But no-one present at the games against Rangers and St

Mirren needed to be told anything. They all know things are far from

well at Celtic Park.

They know also that McNeill has difficult decisions to make before the

semi-final against Clydebank. His team requires a shake-up, but he is

limited in his choice of personnel, particularly at the back.

It must have been especially frustrating for McNeill, who was the

club's finest ever central defender, to watch his defence haemorrhage so

severely in the games against Rangers and St Mirren, who were made to

look good, and that isn't always an easy thing to do. It is sadly ironic

that McNeill should now be facing the club's most crucial game of the

season without a central defender on whom he can trust totally.

His first choice, Paul Elliott, remains suspended because of an

appalling disciplinary record. He has been booked 15 times in a season

in which he did not start because he was injured. It is entirely fair to

say that the defender has been dealt with harshly at times, but it can

also be pointed out with some justification that his number of bookings

raises doubts about his poise and timing in the tackle.

At any rate, Celtic must soldier on without him and that presents

McNeill with a tricky problem. Steve McCahill, purchased from Dumbarton

last year, was tried last Saturday and did not acquit himself at all

well. The 23-year-old's misdirected passback presented St Mirren with

their second goal and throughout the match McCahill and Derek Whyte did

not look like a secure partnership.

Although McCahill will still believe in his own ability, and, who

knows, he might mature into a splendid defender in the next few years,

McNeill has to make up his mind whether or not to risk him in the semi

or re-arrange the team in some way to compensate better for the absence

of Elliott. The manager could bring back Anton Rogan, but that might be

an even greater gamble and is probably one which won't materialise.

There has been talk about about the displays in the reserves of Stuart

Balmer, a 20-year-old product of the Celtic Boys' Club system. He could

be on the verge of a breakthrough, but the importance of Saturday's game

might conspire against him.

There are problems in various parts of Celtic's make-up, but the

centre of defence is one which will claim a great deal of McNeill's

attention and one which highlights the club's current plight. It is a

sorry state of affairs that Celtic find themselves without an easily

identifiable defensive back-up.

The fact is they have not had a commanding centre half since McNeill

himself played. His last game was in the 74-75 Scottish Cup final and

while he went away to make himself a manager with Clyde and then

Aberdeen, the Parkhead side have had to make do mostly with jobbers at

the centre of their defence rather than players with an authoritative


Pat McCluskey was there for a while, and another sweeper, Pat Stanton,

whose career at Parkhead was brief, did a decent job, as did Johannes

Edvaldsson at No.5. Celtic then had Tom McAdam, Roddie McDonald, Roy

Aitken at various times, Mick McCarthy, and now Elliott.

None of these players came close to the standards set by McNeill and

it is peculiar that he finds his team short of a commanding sort of

player. His situation is similar to the one which faced John Greig when

he took over as manager of Rangers and found that the team suffered

because it was without his dominant influence.

There should be no doubt that Clydebank realise the frailties of this

current Celtic side, which is open to exploitation. If nerves have been

frayed enough by successive heavy defeats Celtic could be in serious


A great responsibility will be on the shoulders of Paul McStay, who

will have to stamp his authority on the midfield from the beginning. He

must make things happen, thereby putting enough pressure on Clydebank to

disabuse them of any notions they may have concerning attack.

However, he will require help from others. Peter Grant can be relied

on to harry and tackle, Chris Morris, who is a fine player going

forward, and Dariusz Wdowczyk should be sound enough, but it is

difficult to be sure of everyone else.

The trouble with Celtic is that hardly anybody stands out. Mediocrity

envelops their club and even if they do retain the cup, much restoration

work will have to be done in the close season. McNeill requires several

players -- genuinely skilful players -- before his team can be strong


Like his Ibrox counterpart, Graeme Souness, he purchased some who were

not up to the job and he must now ditch and try again. Souness sold off

those who did not suit and is about to claim another premier-division

championship, and it is now up to McNeill to think again.

It is not pleasant to say so, but it is extremely doubtful that

players like Mike Galloway, Tommy Coyne, Anton Rogan, and perhaps even

Andy Walker and John Hewitt will give the supporters the success they