I always planned on spending Thursday 7th August like this; lying in bed until 1pm, feeling like death, and having no motivation to get up and see the day. What I had hoped though, was that this onset of immobility was going to have been caused by an unforgiving hangover suffered due to Celtic’s magnificent comeback against Legia Warsaw last night. I had hoped. However, I’d known that this would be the reality. No hangover, no stories of a party last night, just feeling fed up. I’m not even upset really. The inevitability of last night took away any feeling of surprise or disappointment.
Celtic set out with a “business plan” a few years back, which for a short while looked like it may work. However, for two years now we’ve been declining at an incredibly fast rate. The sale of Aiden McGeady, alongside numerous other squad members, allowed Neil Lennon to shape his new look Celtic after the disastrous Tony Mowbray reign. Slightly more than £16m was brought in through player sales, with just over £10m being spent on fresh young talent such as Gary Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre, Beram Kayal and Anthony Stokes. The most expensive acquisition of the summer transfer window was Efrain Juarez who had impressed at the 2010 World Cup and shone in his first couple of performances before disappearing into the abyss (Nando’s) with the likes of Marc Crosas and Jos Hooiveld. Although Juarez turned out to be a flop, the clearance of deadwood in the Celtic squad together with the money brought in for McGeady meant the £3m (approx.) spent on him was not too big a blow. Celtic may not have won the league that season but it could be argued that we played our best football of Neil Lennon’s spell in charge during that year, and had it not been for one penalty miss at Ibrox, or an awful display up at Inverness, we would have been rightful champions.
One year on, and from a position of strength, we retained all our star players. Again, deadwood was shafted out, freeing up wages, but the key men in Neil Lennon’s plans remained. As well as keeping our stars we managed to bring in three key signings: Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Victor Wanyama for under £1m (plus the free transfer of Mikael Lustig in January). While we started the season poorly, we cemented our place at the top of the SPL with a 1-0 win over Rangers in late December and never looked back. Celtic’s business plan appeared to be working. We had made a profit in player sales since the beginning of the 2010 summer transfer window and revamped our squad with young, hungry, talented players.
The summer of 2012 was when the warning signs started to show. After winning the league we faced the Champions League qualifiers, although the squad was beginning to gel, most fans felt the need for one or two new recruits to boost our chances of qualification. Our only signing before Champions League qualification had been achieved though, was to be Fraser Forster for £2m, a key player, but one who had been on loan for the previous two seasons so brought no new qualities to the team. Before we had finalised our second signing of the summer, Efe Ambrose for £1.5m, we had made over £8m in player sales. The majority of that was through the transfer of Ki Sung-Yeung to Swansea. After performing magnificently in Europe, famously defeating Barcelona, as well as finishing second in Group G with a record 10 points, we should have been looking to push on as a club. With the cash brought in through player sales plus the money made from the Champions League campaign (a reported £23m) there was no need to downsize in the summer of 2013, yet that is exactly what we did.
When a player wants to leave a football club I agree that you should sell them. A sulking footballer is the last thing we need at Celtic. Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson all wanted to move on last summer. They were sold for big money. £20.5m was made through the sales of those three players alone. In their place we signed Amido Balde, Virgil van Dijk, Steven Mouyokolo and Derk Boerrigter for a combined £5.4m. I do not like to write a player off before he has made an appearance for the club, but after watching videos of him play Amido Balde never looked capable of leading Celtic’s front line, Derk Boerrigter came with a reputation as a sicknote, and Steven Mouyokolo had played a mere 8 games in the previous three years because of his injury problems. In the 2013/14 campaign Balde and Boerrigter managed 4 league goals between them and Mouyokolo made an impressive 2 appearances before repturing his Achilles. These were not signings along the lines of our “business plan” from the previous years. They weren’t even gambles, they had never threatened to succeed. Virgil van Dijk on the other hand fitted the bill perfectly. A 22 year old technical centre-half who had been voted into the Eiredivisie team of the year and was hungry to cement a place in Holland’s World Cup squad.
The biggest problem with last summer was not only who we signed, but after making over £20m in player sales and £23m from Champions League revenue, we had sold the spine of our team, and only replaced one of them with a player who ever looked capable of performing for Celtic. The board took a massive risk by not replacing Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper. It was a gamble that very nearly didn’t pay off. A 2-0 defeat to Shakther Karagandy left us on the brink of exiting the Champions League, only for a special performance in the return leg to save our season. The board appeared to believe that this meant their transfer method had worked. They were wrong. More last minute signings in Nir Biton and Teemu Pukki (combined £2.1m) were supposed to appease the fans worries. We were outclassed in the Champions League. The loss of Wilson, Wanyama and Hooper showed as we crashed out of Europe finishing bottom of the group.
The worst was still to come. With no European football post-Christmas the club refused to offer Georgios Samaras and Joe Ledley new deals. Ledley was then sold to Crystal Palace, stating he had wanted to stay (the fact his twitter profile picture is still him holding the Scottish Cup leads me to believe his claims), while Samaras was released at the end of the season. Georgios Samaras could be an infuriating player over the years, but he was one who cared. One who in Europe seemed to turn up more than most. Since the brilliant European campaign of 2012/13, Kelvin Wilson, Victor Wanyama, Joe Ledley, Ki Sung-Yeung, Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper have all left Celtic. Only one was replaced sufficiently. Even though the performances were poor we made £17,566,000 from the Champions League last season (official UEFA stats). We had barely scraped into the competition against a team I’m certain 90% of our fans had never heard of and had been humiliated in the group stage. But we had qualified, just.
This summer we signed Craig Gordon for free (who hasn’t played a competitive game for over 2 years), and Jo Inge Berget on loan two days before the away game against Legia. We were never going to qualify for the Champions League this summer. Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan, Tony Mowbray and Neil Lennon all failed in their first European qualifying campaigns at the club, yet none of them had had to attempt qualification with a downsized squad without being given a penny to spend on bringing in the players they had wanted. The stupidity of the powers that be at Celtic angers me. They appear to believe we can lose key players each season, qualify for the Champions League, then bring in one or two signings on the cheap to brush over any concerns. Well congratulations. By not backing the new manager in any way, you have lost us the potential £20m that comes with playing in the Champions League. We all know that money is all the board care about, yet by not strengthening the team they have cost us that potential windfall. Ronny Deila never had a chance this year (in terms of Champions League). That’s not to say he hasn’t made mistakes, he’s made a lot. His team selection and tactics have been baffling at times. As I said the other day, we needed to play a system the players were used to until they grew to understand his style of play. We did not. Ronny stuck with his 4-3-3 and the players looked like strangers. They were bad decisions, but he has had no help. From the minute he stepped in the door to be told his assistant manager would be John Collins it was clear that he does not have the say on important decisions at the club. It is no wonder Neil Lennon left. I wasn’t surprised when it happened and after the summer we’ve had so far I am even less so now. As a club we have gone from a platform that we could (and should) have built from, one where we aimed to replicate teams like Ajax and Benfica (who sell perhaps one star player each year and REINVEST the money to improve their whole squad), to a standard where I now believe the Europa League is beyond us.
It could be a long year ahead but we need to give Ronny time. He has been given no support from the club. If he is we will see what he’s all about. He may not be ready to manage a club as big as Celtic, and the ego’s in the dressing room that go with it, but until now he has been given no chance. There are rumours abound about unhappy players who already don’t want to work under him. Quite frankly that is shameful on the players part. Forster and van Dijk will inevitably now leave, perhaps big Virgil will stay for one more year, but let’s wait and judge the manager until we have seen who he brings in for himself. As far as I’m concerned the people controlling the purse strings at the club are the ones to blame for this seasons failure. And that’s what it is. We are barely into August but the campaign is already a failure. We have gone from a side capable of performing in the Champions League, to a side who were outclassed in the Champions League, to a side humiliated in the Champions League qualifiers in consecutive seasons. It’s not good enough. The day Rangers went into liquidation was the day we should have built a squad capable of dominating the SPL for years to come and begin to progress (no matter how slowly) in Europe. I haven’t mentioned Rangers demise until now because to me it is insignificant. It is an excuse. We would never have gone the way they did. The money we have brought in in the past couple of seasons through the Champions League has far outweighed the loss of TV revenue and ticket sales that not having Rangers in our top flight has led to. Money was there to be spent and it would not have threatened our financial situation one bit. Spending a little may well have earned us a lot this year. As is the reality we are now left to await our Europa League play-off draw tomorrow at noon and I cannot say I’m feeling confident.