What a bizarre week it’s been for our club. In the past week, Celtic fans around the world have gone from waking up to a feeling of hopelessness and despondence following our European exit to the bizarre relief of an almost embarrassing reprieve. For those of us for whom the defeats to Artmedia Bratislava and Sion are still fresh in the memory, the Legia game provided an all too familiar feeling. Another defeat to relative European minnows has raised fresh questions over the competency of the board and the goings-on behind the scenes at the club. Why have we not spent any money this summer? Did Ronny Deila decide on his backroom staff himself? Who’s really making the decisions at the club? It all makes for very disconcerting reading, however one thing we must all remember is that there is going to be a lot of bullshit spouted, and no-one really knows what’s happening. There is, however, a lot to think about.
Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that Scottish football is still very much in a state of transition. To those of us who follow the game closely, it doesn’t seem all doom and gloom. Scottish football is most definitely on the up. However, to those from outside the sphere of Scottish football, the game up here has always been, essentially, Celtic and Rangers, and with the absence of the latter, is not worth paying attention to. This has a financial impact; for instance, the Scottish League Cup still has no sponsor, and while Peter Lawwell’s mantra that we have a ‘stand alone policy’ is undoubtedly true, there is no doubt that we have always been held back by the standard of the league we play in, in terms of both prestige and finances, something which has become all the more evident in the absence of those on the other side of the city. While the ‘best of the rest’ in Scotland find themselves pumped by European nobody’s in the opening qualifying games of the Europa League, we’re left to carry the flag for Scotland in Europe, the result of which is a season in which we beat Barcelona and qualified for the Champions League last 16 being followed by one in which we had to play three qualifying rounds. So while our spending power may dwarf that of the rest of the country, it is worth noting that we are currently going through a difficult period, one where it is unknown exactly what Scottish football will look like in five years time and where European competition is far harder than it should be for a club of our standing. This, added to the fact that even a man like Neil Lennon, who was willing to risk everything to manage the club he loved, got bored of the job, puts the Celtic board in something of a difficult position. As Celtic fans we are no strangers to managers taking a little time to adapt, and when you look at the first European ‘campaigns’ undergone by Neil Lennon and Gordon Strachan, the relative unattractiveness of the Celtic manager’s job makes the European situation all the more difficult. The board, then, could be seen to be being sensible by not pushing the boat out on signings; with European football and sponsorship revenue for Scottish football not guarantees, it could be seen as wise to stockpile some cash in case times get tougher (remember, Sevco are hardly shining examples for sensible business management; there’s no guarantee they’ll be around for long, and if that all goes tits up then Scottish football’s appeal drops even further.)
The flip side of this, of course, is that we’ve accumulated a decent profit over the past couple of years through player sales. If the media are to be believed, we sold Gary Hooper for around £5.5m, Victor Wanyama for £12.5m, Ki Sung-Yeung for £6m and, most recently, Fraser Forster for £10m. That’s £44m before you include the relatively small sums received for the likes of Kelvin Wilson and Joe Ledley. Now, I’m not saying I expect this sort of money to be spend on bringing in new players, and I’d not only expect but hope that we’re careful with our money and that our spendings in a transfer window don’t go above our intake. That said, our business model is supposed to be, buy young, unknown players on the cheap, develop them, sell them on for a profit and reinvest. Recently, however, the investment has been missing. We spend around £900,000 on Victor Wanyama. We sold him for around £12.5m. We should then expect some of that money to be reinvested, and in order to progress the club, we should be looking to spend a bit more on a player with a bit more potential. By not improving the squad for a second consecutive summer transfer window, assuming we don’t see any major re-investment before this window shuts, the club is stagnating. If we don’t re-invest money we receive from transfers, we’ll end up with no hope in Europe, stuck winning a perennially one horse race, excitement gradually decreasing until we’re dragged down to the level of the rest of the SPFL. This prospect doesn’t bear thinking about.
While I’ve generally been quite critical of the board in recent years, I’m not as extreme as some. I’m not of the mindset that we should be looking to spend big bucks every transfer window, and I see the reasoning behind our being somewhat conservative with our money. However, there is a limit. We need to be pushing on in Europe. We’re far too big a club in far too small a league not to have ever increasing Champions League ambitions. My concern is that the powers that be may be happy with our achievements thus far. That is not good enough, not because the last 16 isn’t a good achievement, but because we should be looking to improve all the time. Many people have interpreted some of Neil Lennon’s comments since leaving the club as meaning that he didn’t believe we could go beyond the last 16 as we are now. That should have been a wake up call to the board; keep improving. There’s no point selling players like Hooper and Wanyama for big money if we’re not going to be doing anything with that money. My concern now is that we seem to be going backwards; after selling the spine of the team that reached the last 16, they should all have been replaced, and while we managed to replace Kelvin Wilson (and then some), there still seems to be large Wanyama and Hooper shaped holes in our midfield and attack. In the space of two seasons, we’ve gone from beating Barcelona 2-1 to losing 6-1 on aggregate to Legia Warsaw. Essentially, then, I feel we need to start again. Send John Park out, find us another Hooper, another Wanyama, another Forster, so that we can get back to being a team always looking to push on in Europe, because if we don’t, we may find ourselves sinking so low that we can’t get back to that level. Other clubs in Scottish football seem to be on the up, and we need to ensure we stay ahead of the pack. While I’m sure we’d all quite like a bit of domestic competition in the league, we need to ensure that this happens through the others rising up to our level, not us sinking down to theirs.