THERE was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu to hear the Celtic manager talk on Friday afternoon. Or perhaps that should be Deila vu.
Discussions over a second life in a European tournament after the first one had appeared extinguished on the field? Well, we lived through that with Neil Lennon three years ago this month when – in contrast to Legia Warsaw last week – Celtic progressed in the Europa League qualifiers because of the shamefaced rule-breaking of Sion.
Frustrations over economic and environmental handicaps in the transfer market? The other day it seemed as if Ronny Deila had read, and memorised, his predecessor’s spiel on such exasperations, so uncannily similar was his take.
Losing Fraser Forster? Just as Lennon was badgered to state for about three years, Deila offered up that he did not want to sell the club’s best players – not least when his team have been gifted a Champions League play-off against Maribor – but also added the old “you never know” disclaimer. Perhaps the Norwegian did know moves were afoot that would lead to the goalkeeper sealing a £10 million switch to Southampton within hours.
The sale, and the safety net provided by guaranteed Europa League football, should open up possibilities for the Celtic manager, who knows full well of the desperate need for reinforcements before his team travel to Slovenia next week. And not just any new faces, either, but those that betray a degree of footballing maturity. That sort of signing has become near extinct at Celtic Park. Not since Kris Commons joined in January 2011 have Celtic bought an outfield player older than 26.
Lennon spoke of the need for team leaders. He expressed angst that it was more than simply financial concerns that denied him that. Instead, it was that players with no resale value were out of keeping with the buy-young-and-cheap, sell-young-and-dear model. Inflexibility is a failing in the financial domain as well as on the field. Celtic need to show more willingness to think outside the box in which they placed themselves.
The pearler that is always put out there is whether, in the current climate, Celtic would even entertain recruiting Lubo Moravcik. He arrived in late 1998 for a wholly affordable fee of £300,000 and on far from prohibitive salary terms, but at the supposedly past-it age of 33. For the sake of Deila, the club’s support and their own positions, Celtic’s powerbrokers must demonstrate they have not become slaves to a strategic ideal. The Norwegian isn’t willing to plead for such latitude. He plays it straight on the club’s transfer policy. According to those that know him, this is not because he is some board puppet. Rather, the idealist in him – which has manifested itself worryingly in some of his football pronouncements – considers the manner in which strings are pulled at Celtic as essentially correct and commendable.
“Buying and selling players is about communication and co-operation. It’s about two things. When you’re buying players, you have to see if you can get the money back or more and then if they have the talent. Or it’s about bringing players who can lift the whole team at once and make the Champions League and make everyone better. That’s also an investment. If the club, I and Peter [Lawwell, chief executive] see that then we will do it.”
Yet it can hardly have been coincidence that in four years Lennon hardly glimpsed such a signing, even when he petitioned about the need for team leaders and players in their peak to enhance his squad.
“The club is open for that but we have to see this in perspective because one thing is to pay the fee – we can do that – but it’s the salary,” said Deila. “When you buy players from 26 to 35, or whatever, they are used to high salaries. That is also why we lose players to clubs in England – because of the salaries. The fee is not the problem, it’s the salary that comes with it.
“The way Celtic have been driven is fantastic, it’s in balance, they own their own stadium, their training ground at Lennoxtown, have won a lot of trophies, been in the Champions League. Sometimes you have to think what is happening here instead of using money you don’t have and get problems in the end.”
Spoken like a ginger-headed Irishman was the thought when Deila had done with that subject. And the principles of fiscal probity don’t help his cause of getting Celtic past Maribor and into a Champions League group stage he ought to have had no right getting even this close to. He needs an immediate impact player. No – he needs about three, though one is more likely.
Many will also say that Deila needs a freer hand in the recruitment process. Yet, he seems comfortable with Lawwell as de facto general manager and the scouting department as player pickers – which sometimes gives the impression of the manager being reduced to trainer status. “I am here to help Celtic get better. I know the interest of the club is the same as mine. We are working together. I say what I am looking for, and [the scouting department] get up the options. Then we go from the list, from the top, and see who it is possible to get in. But I also know what categories we are talking about in terms of salaries and fees. They are doing a good job.”
When it comes to snapping up a player who would make an immediate impact, it is a quirk of fate that the currently clubless – yet still in his peak – Georgios Samaras would be on that list, were it not for the fact he has just left Celtic. In the past two years, no player was more influential in helping the club avoid results like Legia. His demand for a £25,000-a-week salary to match that of captain Scott Brown led to the Greek being freed after seven seasons, however, and that Argo has surely sailed.
Celtic, though, do need the sort of athletic, experienced player that the 29-year-old is. And they perhaps need to live with a £25,000-a-week wage demand to get him.
“Of course [the immediate impact player] is something that we are looking for,” Deila said. “I would do it in one second if that was possible. But we have to be reasonable, and that takes time. The [signing target’s] first thought is ‘do I have an opportunity here in my club?’ When they see the answer, they start thinking about other possibilities. That is when we come into the game. If not, we have to find the talented player that you talk about.
“There are two ways to create a team. You can buy it, or you can develop it, and here we do most of the latter. But we are also looking for those type of players as well. Of course Samaras is a player we know well, we are aware of him. I think he has good qualities but it has to be right for everybody so we will see.”
Deila describes the search for signings as “frustrating”, saying that “it takes a lot of your energy”. Yet, by the looks of the disarray Celtic appear to be in now, if he doesn’t recast the team he will waste a lot of energy trying to get players to play a pacy pass-and-move style they are not equipped for. The poverty of spirit, as much as accomplishment or ambition, was alarming at Murrayfield last week. In candid fashion, Deila admitted in the aftermath that his players weren’t good enough to compete in the Champions League. He sought to modify that sentiment the other day because, if they weren’t good enough for the tournament last week, how could they be good enough for that task now?
“There’s a lot of quality in the team. I said the performance was not good enough, but our performance can be much better in a short time. I’ve seen teams who are different from Wednesday to Saturday. We have the quality to do it.”
The immediate focus switches to the league opener at Perth on Wednesday. Premiership games will be advantageous before Maribor comes around only if Celtic play well.
“I saw their [Europa League] game. It was a good performance. And I watched the last game they played against Celtic, which was also a tough game. Nothing is a given. And the first game of the league season is always a bit tense. But a good performance and a win will give us more confidence and that’s what we want.”
What a Celtic manager wants and what he gets in the month of August are often two very different things.