CELTIC chief executive Peter Lawwell has dismissed complaints from Rangers of uneven treatment from the Scottish Premier League over the use of Employee Benefit Trust schemes.
On the day Celtic announced a pre-tax loss of more than £7 million for the last financial year, Lawwell also scoffed at suggestions he now enjoys an improper degree of power in Scottish football.
Rangers chief executive Charles Green last week claimed “powerful representatives” from SPL clubs were “hell bent on inflicting as much damage as possible” on the Ibrox club in the wake of their descent into liquidation and Third Division football.
As an SPL independent commission prepares to consider the case of alleged illegal registration of players by Rangers as part of an EBT scheme from 2001 to 2010, with stripping of SPL titles one of the potential sanctions if found guilty, manager Ally McCoist also hit out at the SPL’s decision to clear Celtic’s use of an EBT to pay Brazilian midfielder Juninho in 2004. But in a wide-ranging media briefing, Lawwell – who also admitted Celtic had effectively gambled on making their £7m loss to regain the SPL title – robustly defended both Celtic’s position and his own role in the administration of the game, which sees him sit on the SFA’s Professional Game Board.
“It’s absolutely straightforward,” said Lawwell. “We know we operated one single EBT. HMRC know how we operated that EBT. The football authorities know how we operated that. We’ve no case to answer. I don’t know how Rangers operated their EBT. HMRC know. The football authorities know and there appears to be a tribunal and a commission set up. So it’s straightforward. In some quarters, people have tried to drag us into the debate. But it’s nothing to do with us. It’s a red herring. It’s my understanding that it’s not about EBTs, it’s about dual contracts but, again, I don’t know how they [Rangers] operated it and I can’t comment. But I know how we operated it and so do the football authorities, so I think it’s quite straightforward and there should be no muddying of the waters.
“There is a whiff of paranoia around somewhere. I don’t have an undue or inappropriate influence on Scottish football. There is nothing covert in terms of what is happening.
“It’s been extraordinary what has happened to Scottish football and what has happened to one of its biggest clubs. So that leads to a number of dynamics and a number of accusations or people looking to blame others. My job is to do the best for Celtic and maximise the potential of Celtic. That’s my sole concern. Well, not my sole concern, perhaps, because I would love the game here to develop and, as part of the PGB at the SFA, I have a responsibility for the rest of the game. That sort of input, hopefully, will help.”
Reaching the Champions League for the first time in four seasons, with their opening Group G fixture against Benfica taking place at Parkhead tonight, has allowed Celtic to ride the financial storm created by Rangers’ crisis and the subsequent fall in domestic TV and sponsorship revenues.
Lawwell is satisfied with Celtic’s current position and believes the state of their relationship with the Ibrox club is now of lesser significance. “We said months ago that we had our own plans, our own strategy for particular outcomes,” added Lawwell. “We are keeping to that. We are coping well. Our supporters have re-engaged with the club. Our season ticket sales have been fantastic, taking account of the economic conditions. The three home Champions League games are sold out.
“So we are doing okay and I’d rather just concentrate on us. In terms of Rangers at the moment, we would be saying that we would give them the same amount of respect we would any other club in Scottish football.
“We would give them that respect and not interfere with their affairs or business. We would expect that same respect back. We are just getting on with it. I think there‘s less relevance now. When Celtic and Rangers were in the SPL, I said before that for two clubs who were so highly competitive that the relationship was good.
“The relevance of that now, with Rangers in the third division and Celtic in the SPL, is probably less so but we would give them at this particular time as much respect as we give any other club and we would like to see that reciprocated.”
While the annual accounts released by Celtic yesterday show a debt of £2.77 million, an increase on the £530,000 figure 12 months earlier, the recent sale of South Korean midfielder Ki Sung Yueng to Swansea City for £5.5 million and Champions League qualification effectively means the club are now well in credit at the bank.
“It is difficult to forecast and there are stock market rules,” said Lawwell. “But I think you can safefly assume, by doing the numbers, we would be in funds at the moment. The prospect of remaining that way is there. We have a duty to re-invest that at the right time going forward.
“Five or six years ago, we were maybe ahead of the curve. We saw that we could no longer compete with the big markets in Europe in terms of transfer fees and wage inflation. So we set about this new strategy.
“We could have eliminated the loss we have just posted by selling players in January. We had interest in one or two and we could have reduced our wage bill. However, we decided not to do that to go on and win the league and we were able to make that decision because of the financial strength we’ve built up over the years. Our debt level is really manageable.
“It’s about the importance of the Champions League and also player trading - finding good, undervalued talent and developing your own and giving them a stage. If they want to stay - fantastic - but if they want to move on to England or elsewhere, the path is there. That model has been built over the last five or six years and we’re beginning to see the green shoots of that policy. We have a good foundation today. There are huge challenges ahead for Scottish football, but we’re in good shape to face them.”
Lawwell, meanwhile, also cast doubt on any imminent prospect of league reconstruction in Scottish football, despite the ongoing efforts of SFA chief executive Stewart Regan to implement a new set-up.
“There’s nothing on the table at the moment,” said Lawwell. “I guess there is a body, or a group within the game who would like to see that, but there’s nothing on the table for anybody to consider at the moment.
“If anybody can show what is the benefit of any kind of league reconstruction then, clearly, we will sit down and listen to them. At the moment we would be saying that, if there is a will for a pyramid structure or a new distribution model, in principle we would support that because others would like it.
“But will it change the game or get more Scottish clubs into Europe? No. Is it going to grow the GDP or benefit the national team? No. So, in principle, fine. But is it going to make any difference?
“Not really, I don’t see it. But if somebody can come up with something, then fine. But it has to be more radical than the sort of discussions happening now. I think there has maybe been a lot of attention given to that and energy given to that which might have been better focused somewhere else.”