PETER Lawwell has mounted a robust defence of his stewardship of Celtic, claiming the Scottish champions are one of “the best run clubs in the world”.
In the wake of Celtic’s elimination from the Champions League this week, chief executive Lawwell has borne the brunt of criticism from supporters angered by what they regard as insufficient investment in the playing squad.
He admits to finding the personal abuse directed towards him hurtful but remains confident that what he describes as the “silent majority” of Celtic fans understand and back the strategy in place at the club.
Lawwell insists Celtic remain highly ambitious but must manage those aspirations within a depressed financial environment in Scottish football where he says the collapse of Rangers has proved more costly to their Old Firm rivals than to any other club.
Reiterating his backing for new manager Ronny Deila, who he says has faced a “sh*tstorm” in his first two months in the job, Lawwell has committed himself to helping the Norwegian enjoy a successful tenure at the club.
“We are bitterly disappointed at going out of the Champions League and we share the pain,” said Lawwell. “But the accusations and the push for us to spend, spend, spend are just too simple and superficial. There needs to be more realism about the Scottish football environment and where we are as a club in that. It’s tough and there are real challenges.
“If you get away from this madness, this frenzy in the west of Scotland, then we are recognised wherever you go in Europe as one of the best-run clubs in Europe, if not the world. That is on and off the pitch. I’ve been here 11 years and, if we win the title again this season, that will be eight times in that period. We’ve also been in the group stage of the Champions League seven times. That’s in the same period that has seen Rangers and Hearts go bust.
“The consequences of Rangers going bust and starting off at the bottom is that it has taken millions out of the game. The consequences are that every club – Celtic more than others – have lost out short-term financially. We have bridged that gap by selling players. That’s the consequence of it.
“We don’t have a title sponsor for the SPFL, the broadcasting deal is poor and on the way down. Our own fans, in terms of engagement, are saying ‘Well, we are going to win the league’. Competition is the lifeblood of sport – where is the competition? Revenues are coming down and we have pretty smartly seen that coming, invested in our recruitment to have good players who will move on for more money to fill that gap.
“In terms of investment, our policy is that every penny that comes into the club is reinvested in the club. There is no pile of cash sitting there. It doesn’t exist, it is fantasy. We have a wee bit of cash reserve, which gives us stability, and money we can invest on the right players.
“Martin O’Neill spent over £40m, Gordon Strachan £38m, Neil Lennon over £30m and even Tony Mowbray was around £14m. We back our managers financially and in every other aspect. Those are the facts, but the frustration is those facts are not getting through to people, or else they don’t want to listen to them.
“We will take on debt if we need to, but you cannot give more than everything. You cannot put the club into long-term jeopardy by being reckless. We do not have to look too far to see what happens if you do that.
“We could buy a £4m, £5m or £6m player who is value. But the consequences of that are he would want the £50k to £70k a week he would get elsewhere. That screws up your wage structure when you already have great players here who would make a case [for the same]. In the context of Scottish football, a £50k-a-week player would actually be more than Aberdeen, Dundee United or any other Premiership club’s wage bill by himself.
“You have to attract players here and keep them here. We’ve made many, many offers and players have said ‘No thanks, we don’t want to come up there’. It’s the same with keeping players. We don’t want to sell our big players. We don’t have to and we don’t want to. But unfortunately the golden league is only 90 miles away – not just for money, but for reputation, style and everything else.
“We still have just under 40,000 season ticket holders. Number one, a Celtic supporter supports the club through thick and thin. He is supporting a team which is the best in Scotland by a mile, a club which has ambition and which is one of the best-run clubs in the world. What’s the benchmark? When you compare it to every other club in Scotland, in every aspect, Celtic are miles ahead. In very difficult circumstances, we are still on the right track.
“In terms of the [personal] abuse, I am a Celtic supporter and have been all my life. It hurts and the pain hurts in terms of results. I feel more for my family – my brothers, kids, wife and cousins who all go to the games. I feel responsible for them and bringing that on them. But you either put up with it or you don’t. That is the business we are in, it is frenzied and hysterical. You either say ‘Okay’ and deal with or you say ‘Adios’.
“I’ve had a few offers [to move to other clubs] but I always made the decision to stay. I love the club. Anywhere else would be just a job. Here, it is a passion. I also have a loyalty to [major shareholder] Dermot Desmond and the rest of the board, but it is the club which keeps me here.
“I also have a responsibility to Ronny Deila. I want him to do well and take things on for the club. It’s been a tough start but he has coped well. He has a lot of fantastic ideas. He fits into what we are trying to do here.
“He has come in after a Celtic legend and successful manager in Neil Lennon, he’s had a transfer window to deal with and a Champions League qualifying campaign, while trying to impose a change of philosophy and way of doing things.
“It’s been a baptism of fire, a bit of a sh*tstorm. That chapter is closed now, albeit not with a happy ending in terms of the result against Maribor, but we move on.
“He’s going to build his own team now and do what he wants to do without that short-term pressure.”