A FEW Celtic punters have gone viral with their attempts to make today’s game against Hearts in their stadium a ‘sell-out Sunday’. They will fall way short of that objective.
There is, though, every chance of Celtic Park hosting its largest gate for a domestic game this season. It’s yet one more possible Champions League spin-off in a catalogue of them.
It is odd that last week of all weeks there should have been more wearying debate about Celtic’s dependence on their greatest rivals, this time stimulated by Celtic’s largest shareholder Dermot Desmond publicly bigging up the Rangers brand. Odd because what the win for Neil Lennon’s side in Moscow on Tuesday crystallised was how much more the club can derive from top-level continental competitiveness than any domestic dalliances.
Celtic will pocket a £1 million win bonus for their 3-2 victory over Spartak. The revenue generated by their Champions League journey from qualifiers to at least the group stage is now certain to top £20m. If you want to put that another way, Celtic’s turnover this season, when they do not have the Old Firm rivalry in their league set-up, will be around a third higher than when Rangers were alongside them in the Scottish Premier League last season.
Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell has been taken to task for daring to suggest Celtic could prosper without their ancient adversaries. Come next September he will have a set of accounts probably showing a yearly profit in the region of £10m, and maybe even a set of Group G Champions League results to amply prove his point.
Yet bald figures cannot do justice to the impact of the Champions League on any team outside of Europe’s big five leagues. Prestige and perception are more difficult to measure in pounds and pence but it is no coincidence that on Friday Celtic agreed contract extensions with James Forrest, Adam Matthews and Charlie Mulgrew. If Celtic can make Champions League viability a calling card, then Lennon recognises it can in part offset other structural and monetary disadvantages that could tempt players south. The Champions League offers Celtic an international showcase that no domestic football, including any Glasgow derby, can do.
“It certainly gives us an extra edge when we are vying with certain English Premier League teams,” he says. “We can say to players that we can offer Champions League football and only four teams in England can do that. It’s a big plus when you are trying to attract players. It’s the exposure you get, the experience, it’s all positive. Even in defeat you get something from it. You are playing at the very highest level against the best in the world. It justifies coming here.”
Making a decent fist of it in Europe, meanwhile, justifies staying. Martin O’Neill, and his Celtic squad, huddled together for five years in Scotland because of their Champions League nights and their UEFA Cup final more than any title races, a couple of which were of the distinctly one-horse variety. Lennon’s team are now surpassing the results standards that O’Neill side set, with their current five-game unbeaten run away from home in Europe beating the previous best of four achieved in 2003, and during the Jock Stein era in 1971. Moreover, the fact they have gone seven straight European games without a loss means they are responsible for the club’s third-longest such sequence, Stein’s side setting the record of ten between 1971 and 1972, while the next best is eight between 1964 and 1966.
Of course, with the Nou Camp next up, the gleeful number crunching for the current squad is practically guaranteed to end this month. However, the potential of a young team could have more mileage, as the contract upgrades for Forrest, Matthews and Mulgrew – financed with Champions League earnings – demonstrate. Tying down Gary Hooper may be more difficult. But the fact his exposure in the world’s biggest club competition allows for the possibility that his return to England might be to a team whose position in the English Premier League is stabilised, could extend his stay with Celtic a season longer than would be otherwise likely. Especially when the cap call-up for his club team-mate Fraser Forster proves England recognition can come the way of a player based in Glasgow.
Lennon is still at the hoping stage over Hooper’s contract talks but can be satisfied that his club were willing to back him in giving Forrest and Mulgrew their second salary increases inside two years, albeit that such rises can be positioned as the club also protecting their investments as the deals put them under contract for an extra year. “Martin O’Neill did that with us,” the Celtic manager says. “Each year at Leicester he gave me a pay rise because things were going so well and we were playing so well. He did that with other players too. I think it’s important to do that with the players you can hang your hat on. It’s not massive money but it makes things a little bit more comfortable.”
Champions League football can make things a lot more comfortable for Celtic.