A trophy presentation to mark the club’s fifth consecutive championship on Sunday, two recent shirt sponsorships trumpeted as best evers, an impressively high calibre of possible next managers and summer meetings with Barcelona and English champions Leicester City in an international tournament with global possibilities, before a crack at Champions League qualification in which the opponents won’t be able to count on anything like the same resources. How did it all go so badly for Celtic in the chief executive era of Peter Lawwell?
“In some people’s eyes we can’t do right for wrong and that is the way it is,” he said yesterday.
We are focused on being a side with excellent players. We were getting more right than wrong but in recent years we’ve got a few wrongPeter Lawwell
Lawwell has never required to have thicker skin than at present. Not since the summer of Wim Jansen’s resignation in 1998 have the club’s followers appeared to turn their fire so unrelentingly on the club’s board, with the potshots also rat-a-tatting in the direction of the major shareholder Dermot Desmond.
Yet, the flak flying over Celtic’s regression under Ronny Deila this past year appears aimed at the wrong targets. There is not the cheapskatery attached to the model, strategy – call it what you will – adopted by the club, as is lamented. Spending what you can afford on players with potential, and selling for high value the best buys when they have been seduced by the riches of the English Premier League is the only way for Celtic to operate sensibly. The real issue, which never seems to be given an airing, is that Celtic are spending too much, not too little.
It is the implementation of their strategy, not the strategy itself, that has developed serious fault lines. Lawwell doesn’t duck the fact that the plates moving under his club don’t do so as smoothly as once they did. As it stands, after two Champions League qualifying failures, Celtic are a club that spends six times that of Aberdeen to win a handful more league games… and not a whole lot else.
In the past seven years, on the pitch they have lost five European qualifiers to teams with a fraction of their football spend. They are now preparing to employ their third manager in seven years. Blimey, they have only won the League Cup once in seven years, while their last Scottish Cup success was in 2013. A club that once prided itself on getting bang for its buck now merely gets a louder pop than any other club over the course of a season.
“Understand that our expectations are always higher than to have a budget six times more than Aberdeen,” Lawwell said. “We are absolutely focused on being a Champions League side with a team of excellent players. In the market we were getting more right than wrong but in recent years we’ve got a few wrong.
“The market is becoming ever harder because of the money out there. You can accuse us of wasting money and, OK, we would have to accept that. Our wage bill is higher than it was in the Seville season [of 2003]. Clubs that it was on a par with then, such as Aston Villa and Everton, have seen their wage costs rise threefold. So, in effect, ours is only worth a third of what it was 13 years ago. So much of Europe has seen such uplifts but that isn’t possible in our environment.”
Where Lawwell deserves every sympathy is in what he has to put up with from a Celtic support that has been eating itself since Rangers’ liquidation in 2012 left them without a genuine title rival. A section of these followers make your average swivel-eyed loon appear temperate. They tell you that their club have sold out in recognising Rangers Mark II, as has existed these past four years, as essentially one and the same as pre-2012 Mark I, and therefore natural claimants on any heritage. This faction are guilty of breathtaking hypocrisy as they wouldn’t raise a squeak about Coventry City, Luton Town or Middlesbrough all tracing their history to the late 1800s – despite all three being liquidated in the modern age, with City suffering this fate only three years ago.
And then there is Resolution 12. As well as being accused of colluding with the authorities to “allow” Rangers to reform in the fourth tier (the route back from liquidation offered to Gretna, who could not raise the bond and wanted to break with the Brooks Mileson era) Lawwell, on the SFA professional game board, is damned for not doing enough over the fact that the SFA granted Rangers a licence to compete in the Champions League qualifiers in 2011.
They did so with £4 million owed to HMRC over the ‘wee tax case’, despite the licensing criteria stating no social taxes should be outstanding. This self-certifying procedure is no more robust than the DVLA asking you to declare any medical issues, in truth, but one group of Celtic fans believes a great swindle has been perpetrated. Yet even though Atletico Madrid owed the Spanish tax man around £150m when they ousted Celtic from the Europa League in 2011, these double-standard bearers have not taken up their pitchforks over this injustice.
“Celtic supporters are a broad church and they have a right to express their opinions,” Lawwell said. “If I go and explain the situation, as I have with various supporters’ groups in the past four or so weeks, they are rational and understanding. They have to believe, as is absolutely the case, that everything we are doing is in the best interests of Celtic.”
Lawwell has been pitching that address for more than 12 years now. He has acknowledged in the past that every chief executive has a shelf life. In an interview earlier this week, he said of a club that is a life’s passion he could have had more than his near £1m earnings at Celtic had he taken up offers made for his services down south. He is coy, though, about the future. “My only concern right now is getting a new manager and getting it right, I’m not thinking about myself,” he said. Others want to do plenty of thinking for him.