CELTIC chief executive Peter Lawwell believes it is inevitable Neil Lennon will be targeted by English Premier League clubs, but insists it will take “something special” to persuade him to leave the Scottish champions.
On the day Celtic announced healthy annual financial results, which showed a pre-tax profit of £9.74 million and turnover of almost £76m, largely as a consequence of last season’s run to the last 16 of the Champions League under Lennon’s guidance, the club’s manager was among those linked with the vacancy at Sunderland in the wake of Paolo Di Canio’s sacking.
Lawwell describes Lennon as a “great asset” for Celtic and has praised the way the 42-year-old operates within the club’s current policy of recruiting unheralded players and selling them for profit, as exemplified by Victor Wanyama’s £12m move to Southampton this summer, to maintain a stable financial base.
While Lawwell anticipates interest from other clubs in Lennon, he has no doubts about the manager’s level of contentment at Celtic. “I can’t really talk for Neil, but if he continues to do as he is doing, then unquestionably there will be approaches,” said Lawwell. “That’s inevitable. It depends who from and when.
“All I can say at the moment is he’s focused on what we are trying to do and he buys into it. He understands the realities of being the Celtic manager and has given me no indication at all that he wants to do anything else with his life.
“He’s a Celtic guy and that is a big plus. He knows the club, he knows the city and understands football. He’s a great asset to have.
“I think it would take something special to lure him away. If I was advising him as a friend, it would have to be something really different. This is a special club. It’s a special job.
“We agreed a new contract with Neil at the start of the season and it was an easy process. We went through it and he was delighted, and so were we, to finish it off.
“His main skill is motivation. Players have come and gone in the summer, but he’s been able to get inside the new guys and there’s been no decrease with the handover. He’s brilliant with players, he knows the game inside out and with experience of managing in the Champions League, he’s a bright guy and he’s taken from that. He’s maximised the benefit of the Champions League for his own career and skillbase.
“Inevitably, because of the dynamics of the Champions League, if we do well our players are approached and have to look at it, as we cannot compete with the wages on offer in the English Premier League.
“But we do not force players out the door and we will back the manager as much as we possibly can within our strategy. We will bring in players of a value that we can develop and maybe move on.
“We will be flexible for Neil when there are particular opportunities. But we have no choice but to stick to our system. That’s the Celtic job and Lenny’s happy with it.”
Lennon, who last season was linked with vacancies at Everton and Stoke City at various times, was cool on the Sunderland speculation. “You would have to ask the people who are trying to link me with the job,” he shrugged.
“There’s nothing in it for me. I have a great job here and I’m very happy with the way things are going. Would it be difficult to walk away from this club? Of course. Plus I’ve got good players here.
“It would be a lot to give up and, to be honest, it’s never really crossed my mind.”
The value of leading Celtic into the lucrative Champions League group stage for a second successive season was clearly underlined by the financial figures announced by the club for the 12 months to 30 June.
The £9.74m profit compared with a £7.37m loss the previous year, when Celtic played in the Europa League. Turnover increased by a massive 47.7 per cent, from £51.34m in 2012 to this year’s headline figure of £75.82m. Celtic finished the year with £3.76m in net cash at the bank, compared with a net bank debt of £2.77m.
“We are delighted with the results,” said Lawwell. “It really demonstrates the importance of the Champions League group stages, along with the added bonus of the last 16 last season.
“We have a stand-alone strategy, independent of any other club. Over the summer, it was pretty superficial to look around and say ‘£20m for Champions League, £20m for players, there is £40m to spend and they’ve only spent a quarter of that’.
“In effect, when you look at the numbers today, we do need Champions League and we do need to sell players to keep the club at the level it is at at the moment.
“I would still describe Celtic as a top-class European football club. In order to maintain that we need to supplement the mature revenue streams. So tickets, merchandise and other subsidiary incomes are under pressure. There is no Rangers in the SPL, so we have to supplement those revenue streams by player sales and getting to the Champions League.
“We have been able to maintain Celtic as a Champions League club over a period when we were not in the Champions League for three years, when Rangers won three in a row. That’s been our job, to keep us up there.
“If we ever make that change, if we ever realise we are not a Champions League club but we are a Europa League club, then that is a step back.”
Lawwell, meanwhile, dismissed any concern for the club regarding the current crisis at their bankers, Co-operative Bank, who are in the throes of a £1.5 billion rescue plan.
“We have a committed facility with them for another 16 years and we are comfortable with that,” said Lawwell.
“If anything happened to the Co-op, then we would have a fall-back position.
“We have a long-term loan, that is our debt. We are not using the overdraft at the moment. We have more in the bank than our debt.”