IT IS no exaggeration to say that, in 52 years of competing in Europe, what unfolded against Legia Warsaw represented a new low in Celtic’s continental jousting.
It is wild exaggeration, however, to claim that the 6-1 aggregate defeat, following their pulse-less 2-0 reverse at Murrayfield on Wednesday night, is unimpeachable evidence of gross mismanagement.
Frankly, seeking to assess Celtic’s standing in cross-border competition, past, present and future, means cutting through a forest of exaggeration. It is a worthwhile exercise regardless of any Uefa ruling on Legia Warsaw’s alleged ineligible player.
The club’s board has conceitedly overplayed its hand by allowing a narrative which credits their meticulous strategising and scouting with allowing Celtic to be players on the biggest stage (as well as the best-run club in the solar system) to take hold. Meanwhile, punters implacably opposed to the modus operandi of chief executive Peter Lawwell and largest shareholder Dermot Desmond have over-cooked their claims that the club has been pushed off some lofty Champions League perch by these men’s dastardly deeds.
The truth is that Celtic sometimes perform acceptably at the top level but are equally capable of the odd spectacular qualifying blow-out. Favourable draws and slices of luck might allow them to achieve the former, while managerial makeovers appear to contribute to the latter. That’s the long and short of it when you are a large club with a sizeable cost base but no debt that operates in an uncompetitive domestic environment.
The laments to those seemingly long-gone days of late 2012, when Celtic beat Barcelona en route to reaching the last 16 of the Champions League, are forever selective.
The efforts of Neil Lennon and his capable side were hugely admirable. Yet, the victory over the Catalans came in a game largely meaningless to them, and Celtic only scraped into the knockout stage courtesy of a late, debatable penalty as they were outplayed at home to Spartak Moscow in their final group game. In seven seasons, including this one, Celtic have been in the Champions League group stage three times, ending up group makeweights in two of those campaigns. Until they drew Legia, their last three tilts at qualification had never paired them with a team from a country boasting a higher coefficient than Scotland. Even then, they came within a post-width of being eliminated by a desperately-limited Shakhter Karagandy a year ago. Had, as has been posited, they faced Legia then, they probably would have faced the sort of result now being gnashed and wailed over.
There is a cyclical element to Celtic’s peaks and troughs. Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan and Lennon had no real impact in Europe in their first and last seasons. Each of them made good signings in the early days, but rarely recruited players of the same worth towards the end of their tenures.
Those implacably opposed to the Celtic board say that is because they suffered from the club’s belt-tightening, and there is some justification in that.
However, when debt spiralled to £25 million under O’Neill, Celtic found themselves with a team they could not afford.
The source of legitimate exasperation in the present is that, with around £8m in the bank, Celtic could finance a stronger team than that with which they are operating.
It can be argued that a football club ought to be run as a public company, in that any profits generated should be indirectly filtered back to those people that the business should do everything to satisfy.
Of course, there are conflicting visions of how Celtic should manage their resources.
In the wake of the Legia loss, much has been made of the club having flogged off their best players over recent seasons. Yet, they would have been daft to do otherwise than cash in on Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson.
Indeed, they should do likewise with Fraser Forster – Southampton are believed to be ready to pay £7m for him – and Virgil van Dijk if the opportunities present themselves. It really is a two-year turnaround for keeping truly desirable players interested in performing in the Scottish league. Hang on longer and the scenario, such as occurred with Artur Boruc, of these performers going to seed can cause a tenfold depreciation.
None of this is an attempt simply to overlook the sorry part played by new manager Ronny Deila in Celtic’s shambolic performances against Legia. He seemed neither able to configure nor motivate his charges in a fashion that ought to have been expected of him, even allowing for the fact he has only been in post for six weeks.
More than who, or how often, Celtic buy and sell players, appointing a coach exclusively schooled and successful in Norway might be the biggest risk to Celtic re-energising themselves as a competent side in Europe. Not least because the 38-year-old arrives with an unyieldingly idealised vision of his team playing expansively in all domains. Celtic have only ever really held their own on the continent in the past 14 years when they have put the accent on the niggardly.
Deila is rumoured to have far from carried the entire dressing room he inherited.
In part, that is attributed to a clutch of regulars being given the distinct impression he does not see their long-term futures at Celtic. That happens. He deserves time and support – from both financiers and fans – to recruit players that he does consider can lift the club from the low of this week.
Equally, he must show he can move on quickly from the Legia debacle, especially if Uefa reinstate Celtic to the Champions League. His rehabilitation must be kick-started by utilising his current squad.
Circumstances outwith his control – the uncertainty over which European competition Celtic will be in – are not what he would’ve wanted. As ever, Celtic’s European ambitions are a complicated issue.