IT IS in the times of major decision-making that the king making power of Celtic’s major shareholder Dermot Desmond becomes apparent. The Dubliner is wrongly presented as an absentee landlord where his football freedom is concerned.
That is wrong because, when it comes to deciding on the most important tenant in Celtic Towers, it is the 63-year-old who will take it upon himself to decree who is given the keys.
To the more delusional among the support, Desmond’s strategic grip on Celtic’s affairs is a source of frustration. They consider it constraining ambition, fancifully believing Celtic have the pull and infrastructure to be a player at the top end of European football. All it would take to make good on the huge potential, they argue, would be a willingness of the controller of just under 30 per cent of the club’s shares to “loosen the purse strings”.
That perception exasperates Desmond, whom I interviewed in 2008 for the Celtic Opus book. In the course of our conversation, the seventh-richest man in Ireland – whose wealth is estimated at more than £1 billion – was unabashed about the fact that, in holding a bigger stake in the club than any other shareholder, he should have a bigger say than any other in matters such as appointing the manager. The very position that Celtic find themselves in following Neil Lennon’s decision to step down last week.
What also came over loud and clear in our chat was his conviction that the Celtic post should be occupied not by a coach in search of a pay cheque, but by a man with some attachment to the club. He always tends towards British or Irish managers then, which explains why he famously vetoed the appointment of Guus Hiddink at the 11th hour in the summer of 2000, before turning his attentions to Martin O’Neill. Back then he demanded to meet the Dutchman before any contract was signed. When he did, he looked into the “whites of his eyes”, he said, and didn’t detect the feeling for Celtic that Desmond would maintain accounts for the emotional investment he made in buying into Fergus McCann’s remoulding of the club in 1995.
All the names being bandied about as serious contenders to replace Lennon – David Moyes, whom he has previously sought to persuade to take the job, Malky Mackay and Owen Coyle – fit into the Desmond identikit when it come to the characteristics a Celtic manager should possess. While they all might suit the club, the Irishman might not entirely suit them in being the toughest of taskmasters, as Lennon discovered in some heated budget discussions.
Desmond is so exacting a negotiator, he told me he had no problem with one former associate’s description that “the softest thing about him is his teeth”. “As long as they say I am fair,” was his response. The impression given, indeed, was that he prided himself in striking a hard bargain.
In the spend-now-worry-about-the-consequences-later culture of football and football fandom, he stands apart. He has talked often about the fact that, if he wanted to, he could throw money at the club and rack up a bill for “someone else to pick up later”. He could point to the demise of Rangers for what can happen if you go down that road.
There is an unfortunate aspect in all this for those Celtic followers, and the managers it must be said, who consider that the club adheres all too slavishly to the principles of prudence. And this is the sense from Desmond that this is where he derives his sport, his very fun from his stakeholding in the club. Any two-bit businessman could throw unsustainable piles of cash at a football team and make it successful, but only the smartest could turn a profit and still prosper on the park, would very much appear to be his thinking.
Indeed, he said as much to Celtic TV on the subject, when he just happened to spring up amid all the back-slapping for McCann on the 20th anniversary of his March 1994 takeover. “If you look at the financial metrics between Celtic and other clubs in the UK, our performance, the balance-sheet performance and the performance on the field, I think, exceeds any other club, recognising that we are shackled by lack of revenues we have from TV and other comparable income that Premier League and Championship clubs get,” he said.
Celtic are British leaders in the monetary matters that Desmond both best understands and relishes. More than that, they are a club that follow closely his business principles. The Dubliner is celebrated for his ability to asset manage: buying up companies when they are little known but firmly on the way up, then selling them when they have reached optimum value. Ringing any bells to anyone?
If you think recruiting Victor Wanyama for £925,000 and selling him for £12 million two years later was shrewd, it pales when set against his disposal of London City Airport for £750m nine years ago. In 1995 he purchased the same airport for a mere £23m.
There is no real downside to selling a property for far more than you paid for it. That is not true in football, though, when the desire is to build a team by retaining and developing your best talents. However, Celtic supporters ought to wake up to the fact that in such an uncompetitive, poorly-regarded environment as Scottish football – which has been diminished by the absence of a Rangers in the top flight, whatever the fundamentalists might say – it is impractical to hold on to any players if good offers come in for them. Institution clubs outside of the big five leagues, in Netherlands and Portugal, know their place and operate on this basis. These clubs also rarely feature in the last eight of the Champions League, not coincidentally.
Equally, with the champions route that now exists for qualification to the group stages of football’s foremost club competition – a format that means a seeded Celtic will only meet teams from nations ranked outside the top 13 – they should always be able to find a way through to face up to the storied names in the sectional stages. Indeed, across six qualifying ties in past two years, Celtic have not met a club with even a quarter of the playing budget that their sustainable business approach allows for.
Of course, one of these days, they will have a couple of bad nights in August and come a cropper, as they almost did in excruciating fashion against Shakhter Karagandy last year. That is what so spooked Lennon – and played a crucial part in the Irishman deciding to control his own exit strategy last week, and step down when he did not have that stain on his CV. And, undeniably, the possibility of slipping up in the Champions League qualifiers becomes greater the more playing “assets” that are “managed” at this very time of the year. After Lennon struggled without Kelvin Wilson, Gary Hooper and Wanyama last summer, it seems to have perturbed the now-departed Celtic manager that this year’s tilt might require to be undertaken without Fraser Forster and Virgil van Dijk.
If only Desmond forked out to keep these best players for a couple of years and so burnished the club’s big-hitting potential, his detractors will say. Put that to him, and stand back and prepare to watch lip curl and Kaiser moustache twitch. His tackling of that subject in an interview given for The Biography of Celtic said it all, in fact.
“For those people, I really have no respect or regard whatsoever. When people say that you can just solve all problems by throwing cash at it, it’s absolutely stupid. It’s an insult to my intelligence. So those people, if they’ve got lots of money and they want to throw cash at it, we’ll take it every time from them.
“I don’t believe in burning pound notes or euro notes or whatever the currency is. To me, if you start that approach, you’ll go bust pretty quickly. It doesn’t make any sense and what you’re doing is deferring a problem. You’re propping up something that doesn’t have a foundation and it’ll soon collapse. What we are trying to do is build the club. Nobody has the divine right for success. It’s not a formula in football: it’s an art picking a manager; and then it’s an art finding players; and it’s an art then of putting the right team together.”
It is Desmond’s art for picking a manager that is now about to come under scrutiny once more.