Barely had the dust settled from another round of SPL fixtures when news came in that Celtic had completed the signing of a new midfielder. Freddie Ljungberg the ex-Arsenal and Seattle Sounders player had signed on a free transfer. The timing of the move meant the possibility of a debut in Sunday’s Old Firm game.

The move seemed to divide the Celtic fans straight down the middle, on one side you will find fans filled with optimism. Ki Sung-Yeung will miss a few weeks on international duty and Ljungberg could be the player to help a stuttering Celtic midfield break down the opposition and add that little bit of experience.

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I have spent my afternoon watching the first half of the Total Larsson DVD. If it isn’t obvious it’s a DVD that shows you nearly every goal Henrik Larsson scored for Helsingborg, Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. It is an absolute pleasure to watch the man in his prime.

Something occurred to me while enjoying some of his best goals and I feel very very lucky. Although I had already been to Celtic Park on many an occasion I finally purchased my first season ticket in the same season that for a measly £650,000 Celtic secured the signature of Henrik Larsson from Dutch giants Feyenoord.

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Twelve SPL clubs will meet on the 20th of December to decide the future of Scottish football. The plans are to create a two-tier SPL of 10 teams each. Included in the reconstruction are the return of play-offs, an earlier start to the season and a winter break.

Out with the two leagues of ten the other teams in the country would be regionalised, which is probably the best thing being proposed in the current plans.

Talks of change have been ongoing for years now and people always find it hard to agree on what is best for Scottish football to move forward. Things need to change if the league is to move forward, moving from 10 teams from 12 is surely a step backward, the league has tried 10 teams before and the quality was pretty much the same as it is now. What’s changed really?

It would make more sense to increase the size of the top division and come inline with other divisions around Europe. Moving to 16 or 18 teams would mean less games, the winter break would be easier to incorporate and it would surely freshen up the league in a few different ways.

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Over the next 24 hours you will hear all the stereotypical clichés in football “form goes out the window” “it’s a battle of who wants it more” etc etc. This is a very arcyic view of modern day football, with the lush playing surfaces and players in peak physical condition it is no longer a “battle of the fittest” it’s a tactical battle played under extreme pressure, and no match in Britain if not the world comes close to the pressure of an Old Firm derby.

In a way you can throw form out the window as both teams have 100% records. Rangers have a slight edge in the goals scored column, but Celtic even that up with fewer goals conceded. This will be manager Neil Lennon’s second Old Firm in charge although last season’s meant very little as the title was already gone. Lennon is likely to pick seven players for their Old Firm debuts this could put a little advantage the way of Walter Smith’s side, all of Walter’s predicted starting line-up have played in an Old Firm game before and of course Walter himself has an amazing record in this fixture.

Rangers will most likely line up with five in the midfield 4-5-1 would possibly be Smith’s preferred formation for this fixture, leaving Kenny Miller to run the line on his own preferring to pack the midfield and hit Celtic on the counter attack. Celtic’s formation of late has been a fluid 4-4-2 with Antony Stokes playing wide right his instincts push him far forward leaving Wilson exposed at times down the Celtic right. This game will be won in midfield, it would be very surprising if Lennon picked Ki Sung-Yung and Joe Ledley in the centre of midfield putting them against McCulloch, Davis and Edu would be a very tough ask. More likely the Mexican Efrain Juarez will return to the centre and his stamina and hard working ethics combined with his ability on the ball would give the Celtic midfield more dig and bite and someone who can put their foot on the ball and control the play.

Samaras as he always does will drop back into the midfield looking for the ball, this will occupy McCulloch, leaving Maloney, Stokes and Hooper to take on the Rangers back four. Leaving Samaras time to create chances could be lethal for Rangers, although he is a very frustrating player to watch and many chances go to waste the Greek has unquestionable talent and eventually he will make you pay, it will be Lee McCulloch’s job to keep him under wraps.

In recent weeks Rangers have shown great ability to break forward at pace, Naismith, Miller and either Lafferty or Weiss will again look to capitalise on any loose balls Celtic may gift them and charge forward look to expose the weaknesses of Loovens and Mastrojovic at the back, the duo are untouchable in the air but can be susceptible against pace. Miller will play on the shoulder of the last defender looking for any sniff of a chance and how would he love to score a goal back at Celtic Park, giving the form he is in the odds will be short to see his name on the scoresheet.

Don’t let the tabloids fool you, tactics matter in every game, this match will be full of interesting battles at both ends of the pitch, the team that wins the majority of these battles will win the match.

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I had the pleasure last night in taking part in a Podcast for the wonderful website Global Football Today, nice to take part in a podcast when I’m not just talking to myself, we preview this weekend’s EPL games with some predictions, I gave the viewers a quick round up on the SPL’s opening weekend and what matches are on this weekend.

We then delved into some transfer stories, Neymar, Alberto Aquilani, Arsenal’s goalkeeping situation, and Loic Remy and we concluded the discussion on the question “Who would you have in your team right now: Frank Lampard or Ryan Giggs”

So if you would like to download the podcast you can visit HERE, HERE subscribed to my podcasts HERE or search for gibfootballshow on iTunes.

Please take some time to visit Global Football Today and go on twitter and follow @GlobalFoot2Day

Hopefully I’ll be on with Brent again, whenever they want me I’m sure I’ll be free.

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After Celtic’s tough defeat to Sporting Braga in the Champions League qualifying round, every Celtic fan was hoping for an easier route into the Europa League group stage. But it was not to be, as FC Utrecht’s name came out of the hat.

An unknown quantity to many who do not follow the Eredivisie, there is much to learn about a team that could knock Celtic out of European football, in what would be a disastrous start to Neil Lennon’s season.

Last season Utrecht finished the league in seventh position, qualifying for the subsequent play-off tournament to win the last Europa league place. In the first round they beat FC Groningen 5-1 on aggregate, 3-1 at home and then an impressive 2-0 victory away, with Ricky van Wolfswinkel scoring two goals in the two games.

In the games against Roda JC for the Europa League place, another great away victory was followed by a 4-1 victory at home. Yet Utrecht had only scored 39 games in the regular season but managed to score 11 in four play-off games, demonstrating they are a team not to be messed with in a two leg system.

During the regular season they were a very up and down team, with only two defeats at home conceding 12 goals, eight wins and seven draws. Their away form let them down at times, six wins, four draws and seven defeats, and with no away wins against any of the “big” teams. However they did beat Ajax and AZ Alkmaar at their home 25,000 Galgenwaard Stadium.

Ton du Chatinier is the man at the helm for his first big job, moving up from the post of assistant in 2008 having played 235 games for Utrecht from 1977 to 1987 as a defender. The man he replaced, Foeke Booy, moved upstairs and is now Technical Director. Ex-Rangers coach Jan Wouters is his assistant.

The last trophy Utrecht managed to win was the KNVB cup in 2004, they also won it in 2003, beating FC Twente 1-0 in the final in 2004, MLS veteran Dave van der Bergh with the only goal. In 2003 they beat Feyenoord 4-1 in the final, with now Liverpool and ex-Feyenoord forward Dirk Kuyt, listed as Kuijt back then, scoring the fourth goal.

ANALYSIS

To gain an understanding of how Utrecht play and what kind of threat they will bring, a look at their second leg victory in the Europa League against FC Luzern and the opening game of the Eredivisie season away to Feyenoord were two good games to watch.

Utrecht managed an impressive 3-1 victory in Luzern, showing what a dangerous attacking force they can be. Then against Feyenoord after starting well, they were unlucky to be on the losing side of a 3-1 defeat. Du Chatinier played the same XI in both games. Barring injury, it seemed a very stable selection and all the players looked comfortable with each other, something Celtic as of yet have not looked.

In both games the line-up remained the same starting with what looks like a basic 4-4-2 formation,  however once the game starts there is nothing basic about it, when Utrecht don’t have the ball the positioning looks more like 4-2-2-2 with Lensky and Silberbauer dropping deep to cover the back four, and Mertens and Asare playing very narrow, primarily to keep the midfield tight, make the opposition play wide.

Against Luzern the ball was played diagonally into their box where Schut and Wuytens had no trouble clearing the danger. Then, when they regained possession, it turned quickly more into a 4-1-3-2 and Silberbauer was happy to hold his position, allowing Lensky to push on through the middle and Asare and Mertens provide the width.

The first goal versus Luzern came from a great piece of football, Striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel chased back into the midfield and won the ball back. (1) Lensky and (2) Silberbauer were happy to sit and slow down the fast break, allowing (3) van Wolfswinkel to win the ball back. He then played  a simple ball to Mertens who had drifted into the space between midfield and defence, with no Luzern player tracking his run.

This allowed (4) Asare and (5) Mulenga to find the space, Mulenga playing right on the defensive line keeps both the centre back and full back occupied, in turn drawing the other centre back (6) towards the ball, allowing Asare to attack the space. Mertens then played an easy ball in front of Asare and he showed his ability with both feet to finish on his left foot.

A very simple goal but it showed a great understanding from Utrecht of where the space was on the pitch. Mertens occupied the area van Wolfswinkel would usually be, Mulenga drifted wide on the left and Asare got in behind.

Nine minutes later, Utrecht were 2-0 up again and it was a case of players being intelligent and doing the simple things well. It wasn’t the prettiest build up with goalkeeper Vorm launching the ball forward.

From the picture, you can see the midfield set up in the four with Asare tucking inside. However this goal is mostly down to Mulenga’s physical threat and van Wolfswinkel’s anticipation. Mulenga (1) challenges with both centre backs, he doesn’t win the ball, however it flicks off the head of a defender and (2) van Wolfswinkel is the first to react. With no defenders anywhere near him, he has the simple task of putting the ball past the Luzern keeper, which he does with a touch of class, a little dink, lovely football.

The goal that wrapped up the game doesn’t take much analysis; Silberbauer picked up the ball 45 yards from goal, charges past four Luzern defenders and lofts the ball over the goalkeeper. Yet another lovely piece of individual skill but very poor defending.

Luzern did manage to peg one goal back in the second half and it comes from an area that could be a weakness of the Utrecht side. The attack made it’s way to the left side of Utrecht’s defence, Nesu failed to close the ball down, the cross came in and the ball was flicked to the back post, a lovely header, but too little too late for the Swiss side.

Going forward Utrecht are a very talented side, however they do have weaknesses in defence. Holding a 1-0 lead and keeping out wave after wave of Feyenoord attack, they were finally broken down on the 52nd minute. Wijnaldum found fullback de Vrij flying down the right, his cross could only be turned into the net by Utrecht’s Schut and this seemed to open the floodgates.

The second goal was a disaster defensively. Smolov made a great run forward and draws both (1) centre backs towards him, (2) Silberbauer, Lensky and Asare make no effort to work back and defend, Cornelisse playing at right back is also drawn towards the ball, a goal was inevitable with Cabral (3) free on the left. As an option it was the trailing Luigi Bruins (4) that provided the finish as the ball broke to him on the edge of the box with no one near him, and he was able to pick his spot and fire the ball past Vorm.

Utrecht’s main weakness it seems is on their left side. As fantastic an attacker Dries Mertens seems to be, he is not interested in helping Nesu with his defensive duties. This leaves the Romanian very isolated and with two players working together at times he is left stranded, over the two games, three of the four goals they conceded came from poor defending on the left.

These same principles will also apply to Celtic’s left hand side. Utrecht’s full back Tim Cornelisse can be seen at times covering the centre backs pulling himself out of position, the diagram above shows Cornelisse being drawn towards the ball, and the Feyenoord left winger Cabral is in acres of space on the left.

This is another area Celtic could take advantage of. Against Sporting Braga at home, Samaras played on the left but as he is not a natural winger, very often he wandered inside taking away the option of width on the left. When he was given the ball, his first thought was not to deliver a cross but to come inside and try to create something.

Celtic could benefit from either playing a more natural left-footed player like Joe Ledley or the youthful energy of 19-year-old James Forrest against the 32-year-old full back. The discipline in maintaining width on each flank could be of paramount importance to how successful Celtic can be over the two legs.

Cha Du-Ri could also be a very important player for Celtic over the two legs, despite the defensive frailties he has shown. He has already shown a desire to get forward and his ability to get balls into the box and this could be Celtic’s best route to goal.

Celtic’s midfield will need to play very smart. When Cha makes his runs forward, Juarez, Brown or whomever Lennon picks need to be very wary of Mertens and make sure he is covered, as their first goal against Luzern showed they are very capable of hitting on the counter attack.

Against Inverness on Saturday as Celtic began to dominate the second half Cha Du-Ri’s attacking instincts were very apparent. In the move shown above, Fortune is happy to hold up the ball as Cha makes the overlapping run (1), The midfielder can’t keep up with the full back (2) Cha, who then uses the Inverness defender (3) as a shield to attack the byline.

The three defenders in the centre can only watch as Cha whips in the cross, unfortunately in this attack Maloney’s shot was saved and went behind for a corner. This is a great example of how given a two-on-one match-up, the full backs are very important.

It is not just in the wide areas that Celtic could take advantage. With Utrecht playing with only two natural central midfielders, Lennon’s 4-2-3-1 formation should give Celtic an extra player in the middle of the park. Not only will this be important in the Scottish club retaining possession, the extra player will have space to make forward runs either to link up with the lone front man, but also to put himself on the end of any crosses into the box.

Luigi Bruins was able to score Feyenoord’s second goal because Utrecht’s defence was pulled out of position and he found that pocket of space between defence and midfield, an area where Maloney, Juarez or Ledley could find very fruitful.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Dries Mertens is an exciting young player, only 23 years old after being released by Anderlecht as a youngster he has gone through he Dutch ranks winning player of the season in the Dutch 2nd Division for AGOVV, made his debut for Utrecht in 2009 and went on to score 6 goals in 36 games, a very talented attacking midfielder.

Plays mostly on the left, and as happens in modern football these days he is very right footed, loves to cut inside, a hard player to track and he loves to drift around the pitch finding space to pick up the ball and cause teams problem, there is a touch of the Mesut Oezil about him, good passer of the ball, great ball control, has the ability to rip a defence apart all on his own.

Another exciting young talent for Utrecht is Ricky van Wolfswinkel, in 17 games for Utrecht last year he scored 8 goals and has been rewarded with a call up to the Dutch friendly against the Ukraine later this month, scored 8 goals in his season at Vitesse and looks to be a player to look for in the present not just the future.

He has already scored 3 goals in 2 games in the league and a goal against Luzern in the Europa League he is a player Celtic will need to watch closely, runs the channels well to create space for Mertens and Lensky, also drops deep to collect the ball, for such a young player he is a calm finisher, doesn’t lack confidence in anyway, a very talented striker.

TEAM INFO

A few players in their team that I recognise Michel Vorm is their goalkeeper the 26 year old has 4 Dutch caps, his first competitive game coming at Hampden Park against Scotland in a World Cup qualifier, he was part of van Marwijk’s World Cup squad although never saw any minutes.

Danish midfielder Michael Silberbauer is another player Celtic fans might remember he play for FC Copenhagen for 4 years; he played in the 3-1 victory of Celtic in 2006 and the earlier 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park.

Jacob Lensky is a name a few Celtic fans may remember, I was at Celtic Park when he was brought out at half-time as the next youth prospect the 16 year old would spend 3 years in the academy never playing for the first team, and eventually left to sign his first professional contract with Feyenoord, only ever playing 1 game in 2007, he then quit football in 2008, 4 months later he was training again with 2011 MLS expansion team the Vancouver Whitecaps, he declined a trial with the Seattle Sounders, then in 2009 he signed a one year deal that was then extended with FC Utrecht, he has gone on to play 29 games, he looks to have grown up from his year in Utrecht, reminds me a little of Paul Scholes, not just the colour of his hair, he is able to sit deep and defend however picks his runs well, breaking into the box and causing a threat, also like Scholes he is not afraid to throw in a tackle.

Obviously to retire at 19 and come back you have to question his mentality, when picked for Canada he was asked about the link with the Czech Republic to which he responded.

“Yeah, I love Canada, but in truth soccer is soccer to me. It’s all pretty much the same, so if the Czech team came and asked me – maybe, sure. But they didn’t, so I’m going to the call up just focussing on it and playing my game. Some people don’t like it and that’s ok.”

Not exactly showing full commitment to a countries cause, no surprise he changed his mind, a talented player but a troubled mind.

Although not full of top names, they are a young team with lots of potential, the pundits will make Celtic favourites to win, however both ties will have to be treated with caution if the Glasgow giants want to play European football past August this season.

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Finally after a long wait Neil Lennon was confirmed as Celtic’s new manager this morning at a Live Press Conference, there was no confirmation about his assistants the thoughts are that  ex-Celt Alan Thompson and ex-Leicester City teammate Gerry Parker, Johan Mjallby will be his assistants.

It had been the worst kept secret in football, weeks of stories linking Celtic to player targets with no one in charge just solidified to me the fact that Lennon would be Celtic’s number 1 for the upcoming season, the question now is, Is he the right man for the job? I don’t know to be honest. When Mowbray was picked I was happy, a Celtic man, plays good football and West Brom were a good team to watch, all things Celtic fans want from the team, and we all know how well he performed at Parkhead.

Tony just wasn’t the right man, tactically not confident, any press conference I watched or listened to he failed to inspire or give you confidence in what he was going to do, I’m sure the board had doubts too when January came around, however they backed him and let him rip apart the squad and bring in 13 new players, nothing wrong with making moves, in my opinion letting 2 experience centre backs go and bring in 2 young players is a very bad move, I like the look of Josh Thompson and Thomas Rogne, would they have not learned a lot more playing with Caldwell and McManus each day and not being thrust into an Old Firm derby.

Tony was then booted out after the disgraceful defeat to St-Mirren, not the result itself because the Buddies played us off the park, it’s the performance of the players and the choice made by Mowbray that sealed his fate, and he had to go.

Lennon had 8 games and 1 cup game to prove his ability and qualities and potential to become Celtic’s new manager, I think I watched 5 of the last 9 games under his leadership, the impression I got was the first thing the team wanted to do is win, forget the fancy football, get a clean sheet and score a goal, and although this is not the football Celtic fans want to see, it’s winning football and that should be good enough.

I missed the Cup game against Ross County as I was working, I listened to it on the radio and it sounded terrible from a Celtic view point, Ross County seemed to play fantastic though and I think it was more a factor of a poor performance and a great performance rather than just Celtic being awful, and it was good to see Lennon as annoyed as the fans by the player performances.

Lennon was never my first choice as manager, just don’t feel he has the experience to be the man in the hot seat, but now that he is in charge I am going to get behind him, there is no point being against him, if the board have picked him, we as a club and as fans need to give him 100%.

I have been quite excited by the players linked to the club, Liam Lawrence, Sol Campbell, Joe Ledley and a fit Jimmy Bullard would be exciting players to watch, I feel we really need to strengthen upfront but hoping that Morten Rasmussen gets his chance as he has always looked good when on the pitch.

Now Celtic’s summer can really begin with Lennon in place, it seems he has lots of targets in mind, and I hope the board back him and let Neil build his team; surely it has to be a better season than last, surely?????

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For the 4 years Gordon Strachan was in charge of Celtic I can’t say I was ever convinced, and I was one of the many people demanding him to be removed as manager, any outsider looking at his record would think we were all crazy.

3 League titles, 1 Scottish Cup, 2 League Cups, and 3 years he won the SPFA Manager of the year, not exactly the record of a bad manager, however in his last year the team struggled alot, Rangers fans would even admit there team has one of the poorest they’ve ever seen but Strachan failed to beat them, and Rangers went on to lift the title, Celtic fans had never been enamoured with Gordon’s style of play, so many times they would have to come from behind to pick up a victory, scrappy football is not the Celtic style of football.

Tactically he seems very inept 4-4-2 was always used and when in trouble the only change he ever made was like for like using the same formation, no risks ever taken, players bought and never used, Derek Riordan one of the brightest talents in Scotland came to the club, 24 appearances in 2 years scoring 5 goals and then sold back to Hibs for a loss, and for Hibs he has 20 goals in 52 games in a year and a half, the kind of player if they hadn’t screwed him around Celtic would be very interested in.

Players like Evander Sno and Perrier-Doumbe showed alot of promise, I watched alot of Sno in the reserves, and you could see him commanding the game from the middle of the park, but then Gordon would bring in lots of central midfielders, and Sno was never given his chance, Robson, Hartley, Crosas, Donati, apart from Robson none of them showed they were far superior to Sno, now only 22 years old, was sent back to Ajax were he played 19 games and now on loan at Bristol City, he started on the bench but now has worked hard for a starting place, and from what I’ve seen he has impressed playing 19 games scoring 3 goals, I would love him to still be at the club.

On the 8th of June 2009 Celtic fans got there wish Strachan was out, and in came ex-Celtic hardman and inventer of the Celtic pregame huddle Tony Mowbray was appointed manager, the fans were overjoyed at the appointment, a manager who likes to play attractive football which he had shown during his time at West Brom and in the SPL with Hibs, also a Celtic man, who knew the club and had the clubs interest at heart, surely this could only be a good thing.

Lets fast forward to today 30th of January, 21 games played and Celtic find themselves 10 points behind Rangers with a game in hand, not exactly the dream start for Mowbray. Celtic have always made Celtic Park a fortress the epic 32 game unbeaten record in Europe during the O’Neil days, this season 4 draws and 1 defeat is nowhere near a fortress, more a holiday camp, the away record not exactly sparkling either 3 defeats and a draw, Rangers in comparison only beaten once at home and once away and 6 draws and 17 goals better off, it looks an impossible task for The Bhoys to overcome.

Mowbray of course needs time to build his own team, so far gone are Nakamura, Hesselink, Balde, Doumbe, Hartley, Donati, Caldwell , Robson, Flood, and Killen, the last 3 will be reunited with Strachan at Middlesbrough along with Stephen McManus on loan more on that later.

In their place Mowbray’s signings are not names that create excitement Zaluska, Fortune, N’Guemo (loan), Josh Thompson, Zheng Zhi, Ki Sung-Yong, Hooiveld, Rogne, and Rasmussen, I left out Danny Fox as even though he only joined in the summer, he’s now been sold to Burnley for a profit of £300,000 which to me is baffling, is that Tony admitting he was a bad signing, or was Fox not happy, that brings me to my next point.

The fans were not a fan of Strachan, but it seems however the players must have been, Chris Killen never got a game under him, but has joined Middlesbrough to link up with Strachan again, as have, Barry Robson, Willo Flood and Stephen McManus and they could soon be joined by Scott McDonald, Gary Caldwell nearly joined but Wigan came in, and he wanted a crack at the Premiership.

What does it say that players that hardly featured only one manager, would then jump at the chance to again work under him, I can’t work out if that makes Gordon a good person to play for or worringly does it make Tony a bad person to play for.

The one player gone that worries me is Stephen McManus, I have met Stephen personally, his girlfriend live next door to my Uncle, and the man bleeds green blood, he has been there since he was a child, and came through the ranks to captain the club, surely a boyhood dream, then Tony came in, took away his starting spot, what worries me is that when Boro made the offer and Tony let Stephen know about it, it was said that Stephen jumped at the chance to link up again with the man that made him captain, and not stay and fight for his place at his club, the club he has loved since he was old enough to kick a ball, this makes me question Tony Mowbray as a man manager, 5 players have followed Strachan to Middlesbrough, 1 player has followed Tony from West Brom.

Today while thinking about this blog and what I was going to write, I came to a bit of a more positve mindset, the team Strachan built was decent however an ageing team, so it needed rebuilding, when is the best time to rebuild a club, I don’t think there is one, so far this season 13 players have left the club, and 10 players have come in, surely only now is Mowbray putting his stamp on the club, and with 17 games remaining this season in the league, it could be that the players don’t gel together till the end of the season or even in preseason.

I am gonna put this season down to rebuilding, aslong as we come 2nd it’s no disaster, this gives Tony 7 months to mould the squad for the start of next season, and from now on only then will I judge him as a Celtic manager, I know from years of being a Celtic fan, the majority will not be as patient, it seems though that the board are, giving Tony the money to buy players build his own squad, it would be ridiculous now to remove him and bring someone else in, the new man might not like the players brought in for £4 million this January, which would just be a waste of money.

Only time will tell if it’s been a year of building or a year of destruction, however I am now willing to give it the time it needs to show through, and I hope my fellow fans do the same.

HAIL HAIL!!!

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