BY THE end of the current campaign, Celtic will have a record of four competitive victories in the Champions League group stages across the past seven years.
They had a fifth win in 2008-9, but that came in their final game when they were already condemned to prop up the section. The club, then, are hardly heavyweights in the most glamorous European domain. They aren’t even light middleweights.
The furore engendered by the 1-0 home defeat against Maribor in midweek that meant Celtic will have contested the Champions League only three times in seven years was, as the club’s chief executive Peter Lawwell said the other day, not “rational” but “reactive to a bad, bad result”.
Yet, Celtic themselves are partly responsible for the fact the fans will flog them for failure in the qualifying stages of the Champions League since they continually set themselves up as “one of the best-run clubs” in the universe. A club so spectacularly well-run would not flop against (in Legia Warsaw and Maribor) not one but two clubs boasting a fraction of Celtic’s budget, it is legitimate to contend. Even with a new manager, as Celtic have in the yet-to-convince Ronny Deila. Not so, Lawwell contended.
“It happened to Gordon [Strachan], 5-0 [away to Artmedia Bratislava], happened to Lenny [Neil Lennon], with Utrecht, Braga and Sion, and it happened to Martin [O’Neill] , in Basel, and we never threw the towel in. We said ‘these things happen’; it is transition. It is happening to [Louis] van Gaal [at Manchester United], it happened to David Moyes. It is transition. In big clubs, it takes time. So that is wrong what you are saying.”
Celtic’s strategy isn’t wrong. It doesn’t require a complete rethink. But they must do the right things correctly, and that is where questions are entitled to be asked. Overall, they have signed a bad crop of players in the past two years, and been too sluggish to replace the players they have cashed in handsomely on.
It is not a matter of being done in by downsizing, however easy that line is to trot out. If Serbian striker Stefan Scepovic succeeds in filling the No.9 hole that has existed since the departure of Gary Hooper last season, then Celtic will have made £2.2 million work for them better than the near £6m they forked out in the previous two windows on Teemu Pukki, Amido Balde and Leigh Griffiths, three forwards Deila patently doesn’t trust.
Celtic require to show a little more humility about the element of luck that determines whether their policies end up appearing visionary or vacuous. Lawwell at least offered up that the other day.
“I hope you don’t think we are being immodest but when you are the target of the criticism [we have had], you have to defend yourself. And it’s not just us that are saying we are one of the best-run clubs in Britain and Europe… are we not that?
“It is difficult. With the uncertainties, the risk. We don’t think we are God’s gift, we don’t think the strategy is flawless. Of course it is flawed, because it is football, and it is chance. Karagandy last year, they hit the bar. Callum [McGregor’s shot the other night] might have not hit the bar. In football you have to prepare for that and not think you are fallible, and prepare for being fallible. Which I think we have done.
“Economically, we are far stronger than Elfsborg, Helsingborg, Karagandy, far stronger than Legia, far stronger than Reykjavik and Maribor. Far stronger. But these things happen. Far stronger than Inverness. But these things happen. If it was done on economics purely, then we should be in the Champions League every year. But there is a football element, a sporting element If we are in it three years out of five, we are doing well. We should be beating Maribor.”
There is a tedious attempt to put Celtic’s recent struggles down to the absence of a Rangers in the top flight. Yet, Celtic now have a £10m reserve when, with the Ibrox club as top-flight rivals, they are in debt. Lawwell, though, doesn’t downplay the squeeze on finances caused by the disappearance of the rivalry, offset by nearly £30m player sales inside the past 15 months.
“When Rangers went down, we took £100 off the season tickets. So that is £4m [down] for two years. The Rangers games bring in at least another £3m. The fact that there is a perception among our supporters that there is no competition and you are going to win anyway, and so you don’t go to the game, means you could have lost £10m a year, quite easily, on the back of Rangers going down. How we have coped is seeing that ahead and the strategy over that ten, 11-year period, has seen us successful on the park and stable off it, as Hearts and Rangers have gone bust. And yet we are still getting it [in the neck].”
Deila might consider himself fortunate that he is not getting it more, with grumbles over his failure to convert a 1-1 draw away to Maribor into a home result that took his team through to the group stages. The Norwegian was willing to defend his tactics, which seemed higgelty-piggelty, for the fact he opened up in the second half when Celtic only needed to contain. “We were too passive in the first half and would have lost if we had kept going that way,” Deila said. “We need more offensive power and controlled the game and looked more of a threat with Kris [Commons]. And then they scored.”
Deila has not seen new signing Scepovic in the flesh and said he has no reason to do so because of the trust he has in John Park’s scouting department, which has been “pretty successful” over four or five years.
The manager is placing great store in the Serbian being the target man required, and the signing must work for him as Celtic go into a Europa League campaign against Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Astra. Against the Austrians, Croatians and Romanians, none of who can match Celtic’s £32m football wage bill, he must show the team is progressing. Deila admits it is not acceptable for Celtic to lose in Champions League qualifiers to far more modestly financed opponents, but appealed for judgments on him to be reserved for now.
If he wants a crumb of comfort, no new Celtic manager since Billy McNeill in 1979 has made any impact in their first tilt at European competition with the club. And, not coincidentally, McNeill had been in the job for a season when his first campaign arrived, after Celtic missed out on Europe in predecessor Jock Stein’s final campaign.
“If we meet those teams [Legia and Maribor] next year and we lose like we did against Legia then I have to take the criticism. But it’s very unfair right now because a lot of things have happened, it’s coming straight into something and we’ve been losing players.
“It has been tough, a tough ten weeks. I can assure you of that. It has been much tougher than I thought it would be. You can’t ever know what you are going into this job – you have to experience it. But I am enjoying it. I am in pain also sometimes. But you always have to have in your mind that you have to bounce back, that you have to find a way out of it.
“We need time to get the squad back into the same order that it’s been in before. Consistency – you can see Van Gaal is buying the whole of Europe and isn’t winning so many games either. It takes time. Previous managers have come in here as well and not been the best in the first year but they have been allowed time to build his ideas and structure. Next year when I sit here – judge me and harshly if I haven’t done the things. This year the most important thing is to win the league and we want to do well in the cups too. To get the triple would be fantastic.
“I want to use all the matches in Europe to see how good we are and develop through that. I hope we go through. Next year I hope we can go into the Champions League group stages and go into the qualifiers thinking: We look stronger, this is going to happen.”
And if it doesn’t happen next year, the name calling won’t just be against Lawwell from the small cluster of malcontents that will gather at the front door.