Kevin Graham with A Celtic State of Mind – Farewell Jozo Šimunović

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Jozo Šimunović signed for Celtic on the last day of the transfer window in 2015. It was the first day in the post-Virgil van Dijk world that we found ourselves in. As soon as Virgil was safely secured in England’s south coast, we introduced the 21-year-old. It was seen as a project signing and ticked a lot of boxes that we look for. He had captained Croatia at all youth levels and played 52 games for Dinamo Zagreb.

Straight away there was confusion, with his club claiming that we had paid £5.5m for the player and rumours of numerous agents in Croatia working on his behalf. His then club was known for creative accounting when it came to transfers and agents’ fees. Seasoned Celtic watchers knew that there was no way Celtic would pay that amount of money for a player. There were also murmurings about a long-standing knee injury, which saw Celtic send the player to Harley Street to be checked over medically; seemingly, the club were content with the results.

His Celtic debut was in Matchday One of the 2015/16 Europa League group stages against Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena. The game ended 2-2 and there was an air of positivity about his performance, with the possibility of him striking up a partnership with our other new signing, Dedryck Boyata. That he missed four weeks after this game with bone bruising before making another appearance set the tone for his first season. After an impressive performance against Hearts in the League Cup, he limped off the following game and then lasted only four minutes away to Molde in a forgettable Europa League night.

Jozo looked decent in Europe in the two games against Ajax and the dead rubber versus Fenerbahçe, and he struck up a decent partnership with Kieran Tierney on the left-hand side of the defence. The promise was there and he scored his first goal for Celtic on a frantic Friday night at Tannadice when he headed home a Kris Commons free-kick in a 4-0 victory. His season ended on the 23rd January 2016 after he had a nightmare against St Johnstone and decided that he couldn’t play through the pain any longer with surgery being required on his knee; the same knee that was passed fit by a top London doctor.

Listen to COSMIC ROUGH RIDERS’ JAMES CLIFFORD with A Celtic State of Mind here:

The big Croat had shown enough in the short few months he had played, but what happened in the summer, and repeated every summer, points to an eagerness by his advisers to make hay with the player while he was fit enough. Brendan Rodgers became manager and it looked like the player was being sold to Torino and wanted to go to Italy. A deal had been agreed between the clubs and the player when the Italian side said he failed the medical. The player denied this, saying that the Italian club attempted to change the terms of the deal. This failed move turned out to be a blessing for both the player and Celtic.

The player returned as a 68th-minute substitute for Cristian Gamboa in a 2-2 draw with Inverness Caledonian Thistle but his season took off after he was brought in for the League Cup semi final against Rangers, replacing Kolo Touré. He was imperious in the game and made an important block in the second-half from Barrie McKay. He and Erik Sviatchenko completely dominated and used possession well to keep the wave after wave of attacks going. We won the game 1-0 but that didn’t reflect the utter one-sidedness of the game. Jozo was the first choice from this point.

After the Champions League group stage games against Barcelona and Manchester City, where we lost 2-0 and drew 1-1, the player had shown enough to suggest that, with some development, he could play at that elite level. The club had possibly found another gem to follow Virgil.

But the domestic game is our bread and butter, and although Jozo set up Tom Rogic for the opening goal in the 2016 League Cup final with a break from defence, the player started to show signs that he lacked concentration in games that could be termed ‘run of the mill’. Mistakes against Partick Thistle and Ross County weren’t punished and he lost Kenny Miller for the Rangers forward to score at Ibrox in December. Anytime he played against Motherwell’s Louis Moult, he struggled and seemed to be bullied, but we could console ourselves with the fact that he was still a young player, and that these weaknesses should disappear with experience.

The player was solid enough and scored the opening goal in a turgid encounter at Dens Park in March 2017 and then came a moment that will be replayed for years and years. As the Celts cantered to our biggest win at Ibrox ever, he fairly challenged Kenny Miller, cleanly winning the ball but with the power of a bullet train, sending Miller spinning in the air. The Rangers TV commentary has become legendary.

Jozo formed a formidable partnership with Dedryck Boyata and played in the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen to become Invincible treble winner. There was the belief in the Celtic support at that point that we had a defensive partnership that could see us through Champions League qualifiers. He had great games against Rosenborg and Astana in those qualifiers and it was after Astana that the rumours about the player wanting to move started. Burnley and Spartak Moscow were credited with an interest and there was talk of a £10m fee. The player never played until after the transfer window closed, firstly saying he was injured and then benched, and the club attempted to sign South African centre-half, Rivaldo Coetzee while playing Mikael Lustig and Nir Bitton as a defensive partnership. All signs pointed to the exit door.

The player also at this time decided that he would play his international football for Bosnia and Herzegovina and not Croatia. This decision, in hindsight, looks as though it was only made to further his exposure and sellability – he was more likely to get a game for Bosnia and Herzegovina but surprisingly never played, and he has now made himself available for Croatia again. We can safely say that his international career has stalled on the starting grid.

There was either naked ambition on the player or advisors part here. There is nothing wrong with that. Celtic sell themselves as a stepping-stone club. Whatever went on worked in the player’s favour as he returned with a shiny new vastly-improved contract in time to handle Edinson Cavani like some Uruguayan Louis Moult, giving away a penalty and losing him for the final goal in a 5-0 defeat against PSG on Matchday One of the 2017/18 Champions League
group stages. It was a night where we were given a footballing lesson, one that Brendan Rodgers never really took note of, but there were no complaints about the player getting a new contract.

This was further backed up in the 3-0 away win over Anderlecht, where it looked as though the Boyata & Šimunović partnership was the best we could ever expect with our budget. There was a belief amongst many at that time that Šimunović was the best defender we had at the club and that the money offered in the summer would be chicken feed for what he would eventually be sold for.

It was all looking good, then Tynecastle happened. Our 69-game unbeaten run was unceremoniously tossed in the bin and set fire to. The sight of him slipping and allowing Hearts to score their third and all but confirm our run ending seemed to trigger something in Rodgers. The player was dropped from the next game and then benched against Aberdeen and Rangers as Kristoffer Ajer introduced himself to the Celtic support.

It was the end of January and an injury to Boyata that saw him return to the side in a 1-0 victory against Hibs and then a 3-2 victory against Partick Thistle in the Scottish Cup, where he gifted them their two goals. His season basically ended when he was sent-off at Ibrox for swinging an elbow at Alfredo Morelos, allowing the Conservative and Unionist MP, Douglas Ross, to excitedly scream, “red card”. Celtic, of course, had the last laugh by winning 3-2 with ten men. This was Jozo’s second elbow incident of the season as he had already elbowed Motherwell’s Ryan Bowman in the 2017 League Cup final. Although out of favour by that stage, Jozo did make a late cameo against Motherwell in the 2018 Scottish Cup final when he replaced Ajer in the 76th minute.

It was a fair journey from the high of Anderlecht to being a bit-part player, clearly now the third-choice centre-half. That didn’t stop him almost going to Lille that summer for £6m; he was in France and had agreed on a deal, but Rodgers, despite obvious reservations, needed him to stay. Boyata, meanwhile, was not back from the World Cup and hadn’t signed a new contract. Jozo didn’t do himself any favours by getting sent-off after ten minutes in the home leg against FC Alashkert, with the team winning 3-0 after the first leg, which resuloted in him being suspended for the next two qualifying games.

He then reacquainted himself with Tynecastle by failing to handle Uche Ikpeazu, before shoving Steven Naismith in the box, which the referee somehow missed. Rodgers dropped him for the next game against AEK Athens despite Boyata being injured (or on strike) and Jack Hendry being the only other option available.

With us being linked with a move for Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna, it looked like Jozo’s days were numbered but that deal with the Pittodrie side didn’t happen. We instead brought in Leicester’s Filip Benković on loan and Jozo was injured as the transfer window closed.

The player was now fourth choice centre-back and didn’t start again until the Europa League group stage game away to RB Leipzig where Rodgers rotated the squad as we were playing Hearts in the League Cup semi-final the following Sunday. Jozo injured himself and had to come off in 71 minutes. Injuries to Benković and Boyata saw him come back into the side sporadically over the winter period but his performances were of a player who knew that he was only getting a game because others weren’t available.

Rodgers then left for Leicester and Neil Lennon returned as manager. The player was injured at the changeover but got his first start under Lennon in a 2-0 win over St Mirren. He never lost his place afterwards. Lennon said that the player never let him down at the end of this season where he seemed to regain some of his confidence within a team where getting over the line was more important than performances. He was fantastic in our Scottish Cup semi-final victory against Aberdeen and probably turned in his best performance since that night in Belgium. Then came the moment that he will be remembered for…

Against Kilmarnock in the week that club legend, Billy McNeill, died, and wearing the number five jersey, Jozo towered at the back post and scored the opening goal in the 67th minute. The player spoke afterwards of feeling like he was blessed, the moment was preordained and he felt like it was always going to happen from the moment he walked into the stadium that day. He gave his match-worn kit, which seemed to have been sprinkled with fairytale and Billy’s spirit to the McNeill family after the match. He also scored the following week against Aberdeen to help clinch our 8th league title in-a-row. It’s hard to argue that in those two games something magical wasn’t at work and then, on the 25th May 2019, he became a treble treble winner after completing 90 minutes in a 2-1 victory against Hearts in the Scottish Cup final.

Was the change in manager and the departure of Boyata going to be a turning point for the player for the 2019/20 season? It wouldn’t have been a summer without him being linked with a move away, with Lille (again, rumoured he had agreed on a deal) and Newcastle both credited with an interest in spending £5m on the player. Nothing materialised but even the rumoured money on offer was decreasing. The club then spent €7m on Christopher Jullien and, for that kind of money, he wasn’t going to be sitting on the bench.

A pre-season game against St Gallen saw him sent-off for a kung fu kick on an opposing player’s shoulder with ten minutes to go. This was costly, as he was suspended for the first two domestic games of the season after the referee included it in his match report and the SPFL took action.

Jozo played in all the European qualifiers with his last match being against AIK before he required an operation on his now degenerative knee injury. He returned in January 2020 as Lennon switched to a back three and played his last game for the club against FC Copenhagen at Celtic Park where his mistake turned a tie we were in control of on its head as we crashed out of the last 32 of the Europa League. It was truthfully a horrendous mistake, the biggest and most high profile of his Celtic career. It was surprising, as he had saved his best performances for Europe and the concentration lapses that sometimes littered his domestic performances usually didn’t happen when playing at a higher level. Lennon refused to throw the player under the bus after the game but his actions spoke louder than words and the player wasn’t seen in a Celtic jersey again.

It wasn’t a fitting end for a player who had contributed magnificently in our Invincible season and then stepped up to the plate when asked after Brendan Rodgers had left us in the lurch. That his two best periods were when the pressure was really on maybe says more about him as a player than his mistakes do. Rodgers said that he was a very good player when he concentrated and was alert. There has to be an agreement with that.

On his day, I would rate him as a better defender than Boyata and he was just as good as Benkovic when he put his mind to it. Rodgers seemed to jettison him extremely quickly after our 4-0 defeat at Tynecastle and this could point to other factors. His national team indecision and constant transfer rumours seem to suggest interference in the background but the player has to look at himself and ask if he made the most of the opportunity Celtic offered him. While injuries have been a factor he lost his place in the team due to trust and confidence issues. Whether the player was managed correctly has to be asked as well because the talent was there.

It was reported that Celtic not taking up his one-year option was an unexpected curve-ball. A look at the number of appearances he made in each of his five seasons – 17, 33, 30, 30 and 16 – tells you it wasn’t.

That he has left for free means that the accountants will be ruing not accepting one of those multi-million bids but from a pure football point of view I think the player contributed to a lifetime of memories if not fulfilling fully what we hoped from him.

Kevin Graham

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