Yet, it is old, sure-to-be-departing, faces on which will rest the 43-year-old’s ability to emerge unscathed from his first competitive test – a monstrous one hellishly-timed both for him and his new employees.
Celtic are braced for Odsonne Edouard and Kristoffer Ajer – principally, but not exclusively – this summer moving to the new pastures they have craved for over a year. With the striker and the centre-back in the final year of deals they would not countenance extending, it is equally imperative Celtic cash in on them across the window. Not in a fashion, though, that would leave them hopelessly denuded at the point they need all available fig leaves.
It has been speculated that the sum to be coined in from selling the pair – in the region of £30m – will form the basis of the transfer budget with which Howe is to set about re-upholstering a horribly-frayed squad. This would be an utterly false economy when Celtic’s entry point into their 2021-22 campaign takes the form of Champions League second round qualifier in a matter of little more than seven weeks. The scheduling surely necessitates that the club’s new manager needs Edouard and Ajer at least for his first couple of months – irrespective of how many new signings he recruits over that period.
One of the great Celtic shibboleths is that the club gamble with their Champions League prospects every year by “not getting signings in early”. The reality is that signings that can be expected to be tuned up for games in July, need to be in, at the latest, six months earlier. Even when it comes to the club’s earliest and most outstandingly successful summer buys, there is no precedent for these players making immediate, telling, impacts across their opening games; invariably season-setting continental contests. Indeed, the only impact such signings have tended to make as they take their first steps in the unique footballing environment of Glasgow is of the ignominious variety.
Step forward no lesser than Virgil van Dijk. The man now regularly labelled the world’s most accomplished defender was anything but in the summer of 2013. Yet, there was no messing about from Celtic in identifying and landing the Dutchman. He arrived at the club on June 21 that year, in a £2.6m deal from Groningen.
Van Dijk had, then, a full pre-season behind him when handed his first start in the club’s Champions League play-off first leg away to Shakhter Karagandy in mid-August. However, he was a shambling figure that night in a 2-0 defeat that seemed to spell the end of Celtic’s group stage ambitions. Manager Neil Lennon admitted his conditioning was not up to scratch and dropped him for the return. He turned instead to Efe Ambrose and Charlie Mulgrew for his centre-back pairing and the duo helped repair the opening leg damage with a clean sheet that allowed Celtic to squeak through with a dramatic 3-0 victory.
It was a similar story for Celtic’s other ultimate high-roller of an acquisition, in the form of Moussa Dembele - who arrived on June 28, 2016, as no less than new manager Brendan Rodgers’ first acquisition. The French striker was thrown straight into the side for the Irishman’s opening game...a second round Champions League qualifying first leg away to Gibraltar part-timers Lincoln Red Imps the following month that has become infamous for the humiliating 1-0 defeat suffered. Rodgers and his squad did recover from that to earn the club their first group stage appearance in three years. But they did so because, in the subsequent ties against Rosenbourg and Astana, the old guard of Leigh Griffiths, Craig Gordon and James Forrest stepped up as new manager began to make his imprint on the team.
Howe finds himself in a wholly more invidious position; the result of Celtic going to pieces during a desperate last campaign. Yet in such as Edouard and Ajer he has performers capable at continental level. More than that, Celtic do not possess fit and course-and-distance alternatives in the pivotal roles they have been occupying. They may have itchy feet, but the trick to ensuring they buckle down is impressing on them that all being asked is that they go out on a high in the late summer. Howe’s first task is doing that, and making good on his reputation as a manager adept at focusing and firing up those under his charge. His tenure could be shaped by his ability to do so. It is hard to consider otherwise when his first objective is to come through Champions League third qualifying round ties to be played on July 20/21 and the following midweek. These will set him the task of overcoming one of Rapid Vienna, Fenerbahce and FC Midtjylland, with the risk and reward monumental. If Celtic can negotiate these ties, the club will be guaranteed European football till Christmas. A result of the fact that teams exiting at the next round drop straight into the Europa League group stages.
Celtic have recognised the need to stick rather than twist in their summer transfer manouvres. Both Van Dijk and Dembele were not granted the moves they sought as Celtic remained in Champions League contention, in 2015 and 2017. On neither occasion did they succeed in helping their soon-to-be former club reach the group stages. Yet, the Celtic faithful did not subsequently quibble with the club holding on to them in hope of that outcome. Considering just how fiercely-questioning the club’s support are even over the most granular matters, that tells its own story.