It is 14 years since Celtic last forked out between £5m and £6m on a player – the latter figure paid to Coventry City for John Hartson. Now it even seems inconceivable that as recently as six years ago chief executive Peter Lawwell and the club’s money men sanctioned a £3.8m deal to prise Marc-Antoine Fortune from West Bromwich Albion. Since that unsuccessful foray into the English transfer market, Celtic’s largest such outlay has been the £2.6m it cost to bring Virgil van Dijk from Groningen.
And therein lies the significance of the club’s latest pronouncements that the Dutchman will be retained for the club’s Champions League qualifiers, despite having effectively expressed his desire to decamp to the English Premier League post-haste.
Celtic can no longer afford the £5m-plus rated performers but their strategy is to make such players from the raw material available in the £2m bracket. It is a strategy with which Deila is comfortable. The Norwegian believes that the near £100m more that English top-flight clubs will rake in from television revenue than Celtic can bring as many problems as solutions.
Celtic may be the most minor market players but they have proved pretty successful in spinning transfer gold from yarn. Aiden McGeady was a home-spun £10m. Asset management allowed them to earn an £11m profit on Victor Wanyama. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster raked in £10m for a £2m outlay while Gary Hooper was a double-your-money striker courtesy of a £5m sale.
Van Dijk is the only current Celtic player that the club could be confident of attracting bids beyond £5m, with a fee closer to £10m the expectation when set against the sums banked for recently traded playing jewels.
Yet, Celtic must also guard against the defender becoming disaffected and losing his focus. Deila has no fears over that happening as Celtic set out to surmount three qualifying hurdles and get over the line in the pursuit of a place in the Champions League group stages.
If Celtic unlock the £20m bounty that comes with joining the European elite, the purpose of retaining Van Dijk will have been served. Of course, missing out on such a windfall would make his sale attractive to balancing the books too, but Van Dijk could potentially have better suitors if he shows up well in continental competition over the next two months. It is a stage wherein he hasn’t entirely convinced, and his manager acknowledges that.
However, Deila believes ultimately that the player could perform on any stage and to jump at offers from clubs like Norwich City or Southampton would be to sell himself short.
“I speak a lot to Virgil. I have control of the situation,” said Deila. “He knows what I want and how we are going to do things. I also know what he is thinking. Virgil is looking forward to the season with Celtic and he is going to stay here for the qualifiers. That is so important and I hope he will be able to play good football in the group stages too and he can show himself the player everyone sees in Scotland.
“He’s a top player and, if he should sign for somebody, it should be a big, big club. It should be a club that should be challenging to win the Champions League. That’s the standard we look for. If not, he should stay.”
Deila believes Van Dijk could prosper at a club like Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Chelsea. “He would need time to adapt but he can be up there with the best players in the world,” said Deila. “I haven’t coached the best players in the world and there are many coaches who say they have a player who can play for Celtic and they can’t. But Jason Denayer now plays for the Belgian national team and if he plays for Man City and Virgil shows in two years that he is playing in Barcelona, or wherever, then it gives us references that what I’m saying is right. I believe he has that ability.”