If access to the UEFA Champions League group stage feels like a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket for Celtic given the sweet rewards that come with participation, former Celtic manager Martin O’Neill has scorned the idea that finances are the motivation for those on the playing side of things.
The qualification process of three ties and then a playoff round amounts to a journey every bit as gruelling as combing the earth for that winning brief. For O’Neill, the first Celtic manager to take the club into the group stage of Europe’s premier tournament in 2001 when they saw off Ajax to get there, the real thrill is not watching the substantial loot pour in but rather in enjoying a full stadium react to the drama of top-level football.
We had some fantastic nights against the likes of Juve and Bayern
The financial boost that participation offers is impossible to overlook with Celtic banking potentially between £25 million and £30m from making it into the playground of the elite. The Parkhead side posted a bank balance of £38.6m from their last financial results but the difference that Champions League football brings is notable; trading profit fell from £23.7m to £6.2m last season as the club played in the second tier Europa League, with revenue dropping to £50m from £71.5m. Those figures were offset by the sale of Moussa Dembele to Lyon and Stuart Armstrong to Southampton.
“People talk about the finances and I understand that, I really do,” said O’Neill. “It opens access to a lucrative avenue that is otherwise closed off to Celtic but in my time at the club getting into the Champions League and trying to get one or two results there in the group stage was all about prestige.
“I’m not sure the money aspect would have entered my head and I’m pretty sure it is the same for the players. You want to test yourself in the biggest club tournament of them all. You want the chance to compete against the best players and the best teams and I am not too sure that there is anywhere more special than Celtic Park on those big European nights. You thought the roof might come off some nights and they are very special memories for me. We had some fantastic nights against the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich and Lyon and I always felt there was something unique about Celtic Park on those nights.
“For these players now as they get set to go again, that experience and that thrill is their motivation.”
Celtic will begin their quest to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League in just over a fortnight when they kick off against Sarajevo, the Bosnia and Herzegovinian champions.
If the initial rounds seem fairly straightforward, the Parkhead side are well aware of how steeply the bar can rise as they negotiate the qualification rounds. Amid bitter division at the club, laid brutally bare in a Brendan Rodgers pre-match press conference last summer, AEK Athens nicked them to a place in the group stage.
While O’Neill expects Neil Lennon’s experience as both manager and coach in this environment to be crucial, he expects that there will be a few sleepless nights for his former midfielder to endure.
“Teams that you think you’d see off with very little bother in October or November are teams that can be a real banana skin if you are playing them in your first real competitive games of the season,” said O’Neill. “There is a real pressure around them. Neil knows what the qualifiers are all about having played in them and having managed them. I do think these games are huge for Celtic and you know that right away by the pressure that is around them. You sense it in the stadium and part of the reason for that is not just about wanting to be on a stage where Celtic belong and where the club feel, rightly, they belong but also because the timing of the games is so very difficult. If you are bringing in players and you are trying to gel a team together it can be fraught.”
Lennon seemed unrecognisable as he steered Celtic towards a domestic treble in the aftermath of Rodgers’ departure but O’Neill expects that it will be a more familiar sight in the dugout over the next few months. If Lennon was forced to be on his best behaviour as he took temporary charge, his former manager could understand the reasons why.
“I think it’s inevitable there would have been a bit of that,” he said. “The good thing is that he has had time to assess what he has and he’ll look to put his own stamp on it now, I’m sure. He’ll know the way he wants them to play and he’ll have ideas about what he’ll want to bring in.”