By Mike Meehall Wood (@MikeMeehallWood)
If you were thinking that we don’t really need another think piece on Neil Lennon, you’re probably right. For a support that could read only Celtic content all day, interspersed by listening to one of the 20 Celtic podcasts that discuss the club every week and maybe some time on Kerrydale Street, another article on another website will probably struggle to make any headway. What sort of added value can you give?
Well, if you’ll permit me, hopefully the answer is “some”. See, I’m not one of you. Except, of course, that I am. As we all know, Glasgow is a bubble, and when one of the two big clubs is in a crisis, the news cycle is overwhelming. I’m part of this, as a member of the media, but I’m also not, because I’ve never lived in Scotland, let alone Glasgow, didn’t grow up there, don’t have any familial connections there. My only link to Glasgow, and indeed the only reason I’ve ever been to Glasgow at all, is that Celtic play there.
I grew up in Rochdale in a house where rugby league is king and Celtic is a distant second place. I know literally one Rangers fan and that’s because he’s married to my cousin who lives three doors down. And he doesn’t really care that much, certainly not enough to gloat at me when I see him out in the street. This is all a bit round the houses, but the point is that we often ensconce ourselves so much in Scottish football that it’s hard to see beyond it. I don’t have that problem.
Secondly, I’ve worked for almost a decade in marketing, advertising and PR alongside journalism. I worked for several companies that are far, far bigger than Celtic and one that’s bigger than all of Scottish football combined, helping with their public image. Among the highlights were the posh underpants one and the camera one that used to have a factory in Dumbarton. Again, round the houses, but what I’m getting at is that I have some sort of handle on public relations, public relations disasters and how to mitigate crises.
If you’re wondering how this relates back to Celtic, here it is. I’m dispassionate. Football doesn’t really lend itself to dispassionate analysis, and Celtic even less so than most football clubs. As a journalist covering sports business at Forbes, it’s my job to look at things in a dispassionate manner, trying to work out what is actually happening behind the spin and statements. Sometimes I get to combine work and pleasure by doing this to Rangers’ PR department, but rarely do I have to do it to Celtic.
That’s because, by and large, our marketing department is actually really good. Of course, that’s because they’re pushing at an open door: you don’t have to tell Celtic fans to be passionate about Celtic, which is essentially the product that they are selling, and you don’t have to try hard to make content that Celtic fans will like, because we’ll like anything that we think is authentically Celtic.
That’s why 90MinuteCynic can create five podcasts a week with different people talking about the same thing and get people to sign up to their Patreon and why BTM Celtic can broadcast hundreds of episodes with yer man’s smoke alarm going off in the background. People listen because they know that the voices are real.
The hard part for the marketing team comes when the product is bad. Nobody wants to watch unique-angle videos of Shane Duffy on his haunches with the ball in the back of our net. Whatever marketing guff they put out now about Christmas jumpers or the Superstore being open is met by hundreds of #LennonOut comments. That’s the game.
At Celtic there is, unlike at most clubs, a clear and distinct identity that transcends results. Our marketing is like that of other clubs when the club itself isn’t. Our uniquely engaged fan culture, our Irish heritage, our traditions of tolerance and acceptance, our relationship with charity, our authenticity are our USPs. Marketing in 2020 essentially comes down to selling people ideas that they believe the brand authentically holds and creating a symbiosis between consumer and brand.
Celtic should not be afraid of marketing itself to its own fans in a way that fans appreciate, without much thought about what our peers think. Ultimately this is what Rangers have been doing – playing to their own gallery – except that ours could be much, much better than theirs, because our values are fundamentally progressive, positive and in tune with the way that the world is going, whereas their values…yeah, you get the point.
The marketing needs to sell us a product that isn’t based on whether or not the team won last weekend, which brings us on to the people above them. In times like this, we want the board to be dispassionate. To make decisions that hurt but are for the best. That’s not only the best footballing model, it’s also the best marketing model. Football fans are fickle and knee-jerk, prone to making bad decisions when motivated by passion. Our board are meant to rein that in and make reasoned choices that take in all angles. I don’t need to tell you that they don’t make reasoned choices.
Dermot Desmond is a fan, but also one who doesn’t take enough interest to notice wholesale changes in the game. He could sack Neil Lennon tomorrow but none of us would have the slightest bit of confidence that any replacement would change anything. He’d rehire Martin O’Neill if he could, or Gordon Strachan, because they’re guys he gets on with.
Peter Lawwell has been in post for too long and is head of a board that has also there too long. The problem isn’t that they’re Tories, or that they don’t support Celtic or whatever, it’s stasis. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Celtic board or the Politburo, if the same blokes sit in the same room for a long time they’ll stop having new ideas. The buzzword in marketing is disruption, and our board are about as disruptive as a sleeping dog.
This is what I mean by dispassionate. Dispassionate business people look at institutions and see weaknesses and complacency. They welcome new ideas to test the ones that they already have. Then they implement those ideas and don’t care about what people think because they have confidence in their decision-making.
A dispassionate board would have given Neil Lennon the thanks-and-goodbye treatment after winning the Scottish Cup against Hearts. Our board liked having a mate back and trusted him, knowing that he wasn’t going to force them to change a thing. A dispassionate board would have banked cash on some of our talent in the summer, knowing that the business model for long-term success depends on selling players at their peak and replacing them. When I said before that we pay the board to be dispassionate, what I meant was that we pay them to take decisions that we don’t like in the short term but will like in the long term. This board is only ever short-term.
The marketing aspect is already long gone. Reputations are built over years and lost in seconds. The “A Club Like No Other” slogan, aimed at a fanbase that sees itself as being unlike other fanbases, is apt: we are a club like no other, with different goals and different standards. That could have been our strength. The Desmond/Lawwell regime would have had free rein to change the culture of the club and the structure of the organisation if they had taken consultation, discussed it with fans and then come up with a scheme that was meant to last long-term.
The job of a board is to make stewardship decisions when the going is good that prepare for when it is bad. In football, where the business is so heavily affected by something arbitrary like match results, that means having a structure in place that accommodates short-term fluctuations in performance (due to a bad coach, for example, or injuries, or referees) while maintaining long-term continuity of purpose.
Imagine a world in which, in the summer of the 2014–15 season, Peter Lawwell had published a framework that said: this guy you’ve never heard of from Norway is going to be head coach and we’ll institute a structure above him that ensures a pathway for young players to move through Celtic and onto the Premier League for profit, a place for the elite of the elite Scottish talent to thrive, and supplement that with the best of the loan market. We’ve got X amount of seasons without proper competition to bed it in, and it’ll ensure the Ten and advance us in Europe, where our actual competition lies. They could have sold us that vision and we’d have bought it.
I lived in Amsterdam and can tell you with confidence that Ajax fans generally don’t care if they lose the occasional league or sell their best players because the structure is built to succeed over time. They buy into Ajax as a project and Feyenoord barely even register. The mentality when they lose is: let them enjoy one, we’ll have seven out of every ten league titles and we’ll go far in Europe regularly. Nobody disputes who the bigger club is.
For Celtic, this isn’t a short-term crisis. It’s a long-term malaise. It’s a malaise that anyone who cared to notice could have seen coming long before the results turned. It’s a fundamental question about whether we want to be judged on how we compare to Scottish football or if we want to redefine our parameters and our competition. To do that, we need to rethink how we think, to critically analyse ourselves and to hold ourselves to better standards than the SPFL table does. To use the buzzword, we need to be disrupted.
Granted, hanging a banner outside Celtic Park with “Critically Analyse Our Values” on it probably isn’t going to catch on. But it is important for us as fans to have a coherent idea of what we want Celtic to be and for our board to have a plan that gives us the confidence that they understand what we want. We should hold them to account and they should be able to defend their actions back to us. That should start now. It has to, or we can expect to have the same debates the next time we have a bad run of form.