I used to have mixed feelings about Oliver Cromwell. I once admired him somewhat, whilst realising there was much I found distasteful. Overall, I believed him to be a hero for democracy, a man who stood against the hereditary system this country is still ruled by, and who stood up for a lot of things that were positive and good.
That was before I learned to reject out of hand the sanitised versions of history we get from others, and I started to dig into these things on my own.
When I did that I learned that he’d ordered pogroms against the Catholic populations of these islands, and had effectively run the areas in his charge as a dictator. I reversed my original views and now consider him an early fascist and war criminal.
I was thinking about Cromwell tonight, and it inspired these questions.
Do the bad things a man does eventually overwhelm the good? Is there a scale, a balance, by which we measure them, and how do we judge that?
I had sweated over what to call this article today. I settled on the name above because it was better than the name I was going to give it, which was “Go, And Go Now.”
The given name is a reference to the Book of Revelations, and will be familiar to the fans of Celtic, even those who’ve not picked up a Bible in years, from the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” banner which was flown to mark the Death of Rangers.
The Four Horsemen were the first of God’s judgements against man, and they each rode a horse of a different colour, and had a different divine mandate. The first horse, he White Horse, has mistakenly been referred to as Pestilence. This is not the proper translation though, because in the original form, in the Greek, the White Horse was called Conquest.
We’ve had our years of conquest since Peter Lawwell was made CEO. He’s been here 11 years and we have won seven titles; one under Martin O’Neill, with an expensively assembled squad, three under Gordon Strachan and three under Neil Lennon.
It seems impressive, but something stands out. How quickly, and how far, we fell.
In 2003-04, the season after Seville, the season he took on the role, our total transfer spending was £400,000. That was the sum we paid for Stephen Pearson, and we signed Michael Gray on a free. We had secured automatic qualification for the Champions League, and that was the sum total of what we spent, back in the days before the financial pinch and when attendances at Celtic Park were 50,000 plus.
With Martin still at the helm, we were to win the title. We went out of the Champions League at the group stages, but we’d reached the UEFA Cup Quarter Finals as a consolation prize.
We had done well. Unfortunately, Martin had proved he could work with a lesser budget and the limits of his ability were to be sorely, seriously, tested.
The following year was a disaster. Those who don’t remember it are well off, but I suspect that’s not a great number. It will live with us forever, for all the wrong reasons. Henrik Larrson left our club, after seven glorious years. Given the success of the previous year we had every right to expect a replacement of quality. Instead we got Henri Camara, on loan, and later in the month we brought in Juninho on a free transfer.
As well as losing The King, we’d also lost Johan Mjallby and a young Liam Miller, who had looked destined for stardom and a long period of success in a Celtic shirt.
In the January window that year we brought in Stephane Henchov, on a free, and Craig Bellamy, on another short term loan. After losing the single greatest footballer to grace Scottish pitches since the departure of Kenny Dalglish, we spent … nothing at all.
We paid for it too, as we’ve always paid – and will always pay – for lack of investment.
Boy, oh boy, was the paying expensive. A Champions League campaign characterised by glaring problems saw us win one game out of six, losing three and drawing two. It was humiliating, and yet that was cake compared to what was to come in Scotland, as the league slipped away on the final day. We call it Black Sunday.
Martin O’Neill left at the end of that year.
Peter Lawwell’s start was truly horrendous. But if you’re expecting a straight line between the strategy of that year, and the zero spend, despite losing Henrik, and the appalling ineptness of our start to this season, then think again.
There’s no connecting road between the two, and that should give us pause for thought.
The following year started in disastrous form when Gordon Strachan’s side succumbed to a thrashing at Artmedia. Yet for all that, Gordon Strachan was given money. He was given a lot of money. We spent £8 million on his team, without making a penny back in fees, bringing in the likes of Zurawski, Boruc and Nakamura.
The money was not wasted. We re-captured the league flag, and the League Cup, but more importantly, Strachan had laid foundations.
The following year we added to the squad with guys like Graveson (can you now believe he cost us £2 million?) Evander Sno (who eventually replaced him in the team), Derek Riordan, Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, Lee Naylor and, eventually, Paul Hartley.
At the same time, we’d sold Pearson, Hartson, Varga, Maloney, Ross Wallace and, most alarmingly, Stan Petrov, for whom we got £6,500,000.
Nevertheless, it was a net spend and those two years of investment brought rewards.
They brought big rewards.
We stormed to the title. We won the Scottish Cup. Most importantly, that investment, upwards of £10 million in just two years, had not only rebuilt Martin O’Neill’s squad but elevated us to the big time. We qualified from a Champions League group including Manchester United and Benfica, and reached the Round of 16, a feat Martin himself had not been able to achieve.
Martin O’Neill’s tenure had proved that investment brings rewards.
Gordon Strachan had been given money to spend and he had proved the same. For the second time in a decade, the club appeared to be going in exactly the right direction.
Something special was in the air, and Peter Lawwell was right there, steering the ship, and reaping the plaudits … and he was right to.
We were reaching into foreign markets. The signing of Nakamura had made us credible in the Far East, and his goals, in particular against Manchester United, were winning us friends and admirers across the global game. The signing of Hesselink and Graveson had made us look like an attractive and ambitious football club, one that knew where it was going.
They brought credibility to Celtic. They installed a swagger in our team and our fans. Every player knew he was surrounded by talented names.
We were respected in Europe again, and at home Rangers quivered in fear at the mention of our names. These were glory years, and no mistake.
The following season we added yet more quality, bringing in Scott Brown, Scott McDonald, Barry Robson, Massimo Donati and Andreas Hinkel.
Yet, oddly, Kenny Miller departed for £3 million, causing a brief spark of outrage amongst fans who had heard the manager say what a valued member of the squad he was shortly before he was punted.
Who was really making those kind of decisions? It was the first time – but it would not be the least –when that question was asked aloud.
Nevertheless, you could not shake the feeling that we were still showing ambition and intent. Those signings had built on what was already there, and made us seem stronger than we’d been in decades. We won a third title, qualified for the Round of 16 again and appeared on the cusp of being accepted as a European club of prowess once more.
And we deserved to be because we were acting like one.
Then everything went wrong. We made a colossal mistake in the 2008-09 season that haunts us today, and marked the point when some of us stopped believing.
Let me nail a couple of things before I start. Celtic spent money that year. They spent a good sum of money, as it turns out. We spent roughly £8 million in the summer of that season, and a further £2.1 million between 1 December and 31 January.
On the back of two Group stage successes, we ought to have had it to spend.
We signed Glen Loovins and Shaun Maloney for a combined total of nearly £5 million. We spent £1.5 on Georgios Samaras. We spent £400,000 on Marc Crosas and another £500,000 on Paddy McCourt. That was before December, where we spent £800,000 on the combined talents of a kid called Niall McGinn and a left back called Milan Misun. Remember him?
We brought in around £1.7 million on the sales of Sno and Derek Riordan.
So, in that god-awful year there was, in fact, a significant net spend, and I haven’t even included the player who’s signing, on the last day of the window, characterised the peculiar madness of the time, that of Wilo Flood, who cost us over £1 million.
The fans, the manager, the players on the park, were jaded though. We weren’t playing well, not converting our chances, and we’d been crying out for a proven goal-scorer.
We felt the boat could have been pushed out for one. We might have got Fletcher of Hibs for a little over what we paid for Flood and with another Champions League pot of gold waiting for the title winners, it didn’t seem like a lot to ask.
The striker was never delivered. Flood’s signing padded out an area of the team where we were already well covered. Was that when everything changed? Who knows? Somewhere inside Celtic Park the machine had broken down. We spiralled to a disastrous championship loss, failing to win ten games after the turn of the year.
The following year, it all collapsed for real.
People talk about that period as though Mowbray was backed as Strachan had been. Let’s knock that on the head for a start. It’s simply not true. For every penny Tony Mowbray is alleged to have squandered, there was a sale, or sales, to offset what he’d done. The problem is, without a sustained investment in the team we were scrambling to replace those who left, and the trouble was that we didn’t replace like with like. As big names, like Nakamura and Jan were removed from the wage bill the quality to replace them was simply not there.
We had started to stagnate, at the worst possible time. The appointment of Mowbray was a disaster for which Peter Lawwell later personally apologised.
It was too little, too late. The club was in freefall. We failed to win a trophy for the first time in seven years, and when the manager was sacked we replaced him with an untested coach, Neil Lennon, who steadied the ship but still crashed out of the Scottish Cup.
The following year, with the rookie Lennon in charge, we spent £10,000,000 on players but brought in £16,000,000 in transfer fees, with a staggering 18 members of the first team squad, and 37 players in total, being shown the door. The wage bill dropped like an anvil. £6 million in profits from player trading were posted in addition.
Sixteen players were brought in. Of that number, just five are still with the club. Fraser Forster and Tony Watt left earlier this year, and Gary Hooper left the season before.
We failed to win the league. We secured a paltry Scottish Cup for our efforts, after a season of transition and downsizing which is probably unrivalled in our history.
The trend continued. We were now in a state of permanent flux, and we have been ever since, reducing costs at a rapid rate. The following year we won our title back as Rangers began their slide into the abyss, on a net spend of a little over £500,000. We spent £3.1 million during that season, and we brought in £2.65 million.
Actual investment in the team? Virtually nil.
The following season we brought in £8.5 million in player sales, and we spent less than half of it – £3.9 million, to be exact – in a season where the downszing of the previous year had gone into overdrive.
Yet something clicked. Our rookie coach had proved he had some game.
We won the title and we won the Scottish Cup with a team built on a cash surplus, and we went one better than even that when we, once again, reached the Round of 16 in the Champions League.
It was a modern footballing miracle. Lawwell swaggered around Europe’s footballing cities as if he himself had picked the team. All talk was of the success of “the strategy.”
Yet Lennon had paid a high price for the mistakes of previous regimes, all of which had been signed off on by the CEO.
Despite the cutting, Lennon had come good. He’d made something out of nothing.
We all know how Neil was rewarded. In his three full years in the job, his transfer balance sheet was almost £10,000,000 in the black. Was he given that money to spend? Of course not. He wasn’t even offered improved terms on the contract he’d signed.
I have long said that Peter Lawwell should have gone with Tony Mowbray. That high priced mistake had been a shared one, and an apology hadn’t cut it. With the Mowbray experiment in ruins, our club forced on Neil Lennon the policy of doing more with less. Lawwell was lauded for the success we had under Gordon Strachan, at a time when our club had ambition and balls, and was spending money and looked to be on the path to real European credibility. Those were the good years, those when he rode the White Horse of Conquest.
He has never been as good at taking the blame.
The years 2008-09 and the cataclysmic year 2009-10 saw him riding the Red Horse of War.
The Red Horse symbolises the spilling of blood. Whilst the White Horse signifies victory in war – Conquest – the Red Horse is the symbol of civil strife and civil war. Those were, indeed, years we’d like to forget.
What happened to us during those years? Were they the years when the strategy shifted? I ask this because, as I said at the start, people have called it “the strategy” as if it were one thread running all the way through the Lawwell tenure. As I’ve demonstrated, this is actually far from the truth.
See, the loss of Larsson and the abject failure to replace him happened early in Lawwell’s term, and it’s probably easy to blame him for that, and many people do. Yet what happened in the next couple of years gave lie to the whole idea that we were going backwards. We spent money, big money, real money, on players. Gordon Strachan was allowed the resources to build his side, and in those three early years Peter Lawwell really was the Man With The Midas Touch.
I have never grudged him the plaudits he garnered in those days. His performance in the job, up until season 2007-08, when that first breakdown in communication between the manager and the CEO popped up over Kenny Miller, and which was repeated the following year with the sale of Massimo Donati and the failure by the club to sign a striker in the January window, was exemplary. Back then, I thought the guy walked on water.
When that window closed, the blinkers fell off. We had failed at the moment when Rangers was at its weakest point in a generation. Overloaded with debt, with the world banking crisis hitting full force, with MIH on the brink of total disaster, they were teetering on the edge of the abyss, and had we acted, in that window, with resolution and conviction, and the will to give them one hard push, I firmly believe they’d have been in administration that summer and dead by the end of it, because they were floundering in a sea of red ink and with the financial world in chaos there would have been no saving them from their deserved fate.
The millions we’d have banked from the Champions League would have allowed us to build on what was already a very good side, and with an astute tactician like Strachan at the helm who knows where the club might have ended up.
I have never accepted those who said that the survival of Rangers was a consideration inside Celtic Park, and I still hold no truck with anyone who claims we “threw” the league that season to keep them alive. I think the idea is nonsense, the product of a febrile imagination.
What I think happened was one of two things. We were either gun-shy, and we bottled out of administering the coup-de-grace, or the people in charge of our club simply missed the historical significance of the moment. I find both hard to believe, but when the alternative explanation is to believe that we wanted them to survive and so handed them a title I have to accept one or the other. If I had to guess, I’d say we lost our nerve and decided it would probably happen anyway – we were still top of the table going into that window – and it would sit better if we weren’t quite so blatantly trying to shove them into the grave.
Whatever the explanation, that was the point where I stopped believing. That Rangers won another two titles on the bounce, securing them something in the region of £50 million over the three years, money they’d certainly have been dead without, still haunts us today.
Of course, that is the same period covered by the twin scandals of the Discounted Options Scheme and the SFA’s granting of a European license. If Legia has taught us anything at all it’s taught us that there are parts of the footballing world where breaches of the rules on player registration and on full disclosure are still taken very, very seriously.
Some feel Celtic have never pursued these matters as robustly as they should. I point to the CEO on that, and I ask him why this is the case, and I’d also ask anyone who’s waiting on justice, now how they think it can be delivered whilst he sits on the SFA game board? Sevco Rangers will claim any pursuit of these matters, at this juncture, is tainted … and they’d be right. Our club is never going to be able to pursue them whilst Lawwell’s in that post … and I darkly suspect that this was part of the “trade off” that put him there. Our silence was the price we paid for his elevation.
Our reticence on these matters – matters involving tens of millions of pounds – is staggering, and this, as much as what followed those two Years of War, poses questions to Lawwell he is not placed to answer, and count in the negative column against him.
The Third Horseman of the Apocalypse is the one that stalked Neil Francis Lennon every day of his tenure as manager, and the one I believe brought that tenure to its end.
Having rode the Red Horse of War, Lawwell positioned himself on the Black Horse of Famine.
Let’s go over, once again, the stats as they were at the end of Neil’s full third year in the job. He had secured two titles. He had gotten us through to the Round of 16 in Europe, and he had done this without having spent money. Neil Lennon’s three years at Celtic had resulted in a transfer surplus of £10,000,000 when that season came to an end.
Whatever anyone might argue otherwise, Neil Lennon was never backed by Peter Lawwell and the board, and I do not care what anyone says in mitigation. It is not borne out by the facts. The scandalous way in which he was treated by those inside our own club shames them, and could have cost this man his reputation in the game.
Neil Lennon was willing to give more than any manager in Scotland ever has. He faced death threats and physical assaults. He was the victim of a terrorist attack – I will never accept it as anything else – which also went after other prominent figures. He gave everything to Celtic and a lot more, and he was never given a fraction of the support handed out to O’Neill, Strachan or even Mowbray.
Whatever happened during the Years of War had changed the direction of the club. Whatever strategy we had been following, the one that had seen Lawwell so coveted that Arsenal were said to be ready to offer him a job, it was dumped and a new one put in place.
Lennon paid the price for it, and at the end of that third full season, having accomplished miracles with less than pocket change, he must have felt fully entitled to the respect – and the rewards – that went with that. Instead, what happened?
The team he’d built was ripped apart. The £10,000,000 transfer surplus doubled. He spent £11 million on players, but the club brought in £23 million on outgoing fees in the same season. Neil Lennon had delivered profits – on player sales alone – of £22 million in four years, yet at the end of last season he saw Joe Ledley leave after he was denied a better contract, he saw Samaras treated with contempt and not even offered a deal and there were dark hints that Virgil Van Dijk and Fraser Forster would be the next big names to go. Kris Commons, who the manager wanted to sign up on an improved deal, has not been offered it yet, and it’s rumoured he’ll leave despite winning last year’s Player of the Year awards at a walk.
Lennon walked away. We replaced him with a manager from Norway who had originally been mooted as his assistant. Fraser Forster’s transfer out of the club leaves the five year transfer surplus at a breathtaking £32 million. Despite this, the new coach has spent no money, signing four players, one on a free transfer and the other three on loan.
He maintains that the money for signings is there, but the problem is wages. I’ll get back to that subject presently, but for just a moment let’s marvel at the blatant contradiction in those who tell us that modern football is now so expensive we cannot compete.
Celtic’s transfer record of £6 million was set fourteen years ago, when the market value of players was a fraction of what it is today. A comparable fee today would be around the £9 million mark.
Now, even average players can fetch that price. In the year we signed Sutton, year 2000, Luis Figo set the world transfer record with a £37 million move. Today the record stands at £85 million, the deal that took Gareth Bale to Madrid.
In those 14 years, as football prices have escalated insanely, as the cost of attending games has gone up and up and up. At the same time, TV revenues have increased, prize money has gone up and the Champions League has become a multi-million pound bonanza no-one could have dreamed.
Despite all that, Celtic’s desire to spend the market value has actually evaporated. The closest we have come to spending anywhere near our own record is the £4 million that brought Scott Brown to Celtic Park in 2007.
Today our manager talked about us not being willing to spend £5 million on one footballer, and so it looks as if the £6 million price tag Chelsea put on Sutton is higher than we’ll ever go again, under the present board, and as prices continue to rise the quality of what you can buy for that kind of money goes down accordingly, locking us permanently into a vicious circle of mediocrity.
We have been going backwards, as a club, for six long years now, perversely the very six that Graham Speirs chose to highlight in his recent article as proof of the “success of the strategy.” In that time of appalling downsizing we have crashed out of Europe before the groups in one of those seasons and in four of the other five turned in displays that humiliated us and undid much of the reputation building for which Lawwell was being praised only a few years before.
In that same timeframe we have competed in twelve domestic cup competitions, and won three. We have contested six league titles and lost half of them. We won one after Rangers had thrown away a fifteen point lead and we secured the other two following their liquidation. The football in that time has veered wildly between the ridiculous and the sublime, and Ronny Deila is our fourth manager in the cycle. Continuity has been non-existent.
Forget competing with the European big boys and the cash rich EPL. But for the collapse of Rangers, we would barely be keeping our noses in front here in Scotland, and that, my friends, is the real indictment of Lawwell, the strategy and the board.
The strategy has been a shambles for years, but somehow people don’t want to see it. The spectacular success Lennon achieved in his third year in the job was in spite of the board, not because of them, and as we’ve seen, it was swiftly, shockingly, undone.
What happened here? Where did everything start to go wrong?
Did Lawwell’s ego, and his influence, grow out of control after Strachan’s team had twice secured qualification out of the groups? The overture from Arsenal came around this time, and he turned it down. His remuneration rose accordingly, but did his authority increase too?
The evidence is there, in the treatment of Miller and Donati, players the manager had praised only to sell shortly thereafter. Did Lawwell start believing his own press and his own hype? Who can forget his turning up for the Robbie Keane loan deal press conference, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, at a time when Rangers were already out of sight in the league race and we’d just pocketed £3.5 million for our top scorer, Scott McDonald?
Lawwell’s salary and bonuses have gone up every year since. At a time when Celtic fans mock Sevco supporters mercilessly over the money being leeched out of the club by Ally McCoist, our own CEO is probably the most handsomely compensated person in Scottish football. His salary topped that of the man in the dugout at Ibrox, and was nearly twice that of Neil Lennon.
Today our manager spoke of the wage ceiling at Celtic Park, the one which forced Ledley, Samaras and others out the door and which effectively blocks any significant signing who will markedly improve the team. At a time of vastly increasingly salaries across the game we have capped player wages at a level which will never allow us to grow our squad.
Yet the number is more than a mere quirk of the strategy, because it assures something else. It assures that there is no player at Celtic Park now, or likely to be in the immediate future, who will earn more for putting in a shift than Lawwell himself. He is the best paid person at Parkhead by miles, and there cannot be any CEO in the country who earns such a wage running a comparable organisation in terms of turnover and staff.
Peter Lawwell is, quite simply, vastly over-paid and hugely over-rated when one examines where we were only six or seven years ago as compared to where we are today. The quality of our management team, and that of the team on the park, has plummeted in direct proportion to his own recompense, and the piling up of cash from profitable transfer deals.
When Celtic was regularly punching above its weight in Europe, with a squad of high quality, exciting footballers and big name signings, with our reputation largely restored and our club beginning to explore foreign markets, Peter Lawwell was earning half of his current salary and doing a vastly better job in delivering what the football club required.
Somewhere along the line, everything changed. We are now failing at every level, and the gaps in the stands, which some put down to the absence of a club called Rangers, are, at least partly, to do with a realisation that we’re presently a club going nowhere.
In the space of the last four or five weeks, the rot at the very soul of our club has been exposed for all to see, with a match promoter threatening legal action because we cashed their cheque and sent a bunch of kids to be roundly thrashed by Spurs.
On the back of a calamitous Champions League campaign last year, we weakened the team, replaced the manager with someone with no European experience, and forced him to travel the world in meaningless games, for money, and then we were destroyed over two legs against the Poles, before being reprieved by UEFA.
We then let the shame of our defeat and the manner of our reinstatement be multiplied tenfold in the eyes of people all over the world with our abject failure to take the initiative in an escalating PR war with Legia Warsaw.
It does not matter that we were right to leave it to UEFA. The publicity, on top of everything else, has been horrendous and we did not get on top of it quickly enough.
The reputational damage these events have done to us, outside of Scotland, where it really does matter, in terms of lucrative invites to play matches, to being considered a big team, with knock on effects in terms of our ability to attract good players, is very nearly incomprehensible, and someone ought to carry the can for that.
This cannot be allowed to continue.
Peter Lawwell now sits atop the Pale Horse, the Death Horse, as the CEO of a ship on its way towards the rocks. The failure to invest in the team has already resulted in one drubbing in Europe this season, and if another follows it the knock-on consequences could send us into a truly terrifying downward spiral in which fans stop coming to games, the team loses focus, the balance sheet starts to dip downward and the manager and the playing squad pay the consequences for failures way above their heads.
Does the good a man does become overwhelmed by the bad? Does early success offer an alibi for later failure? When does one begin to cover the other? Ego and arrogance have brought down empires. Greed has brought down more.
I said at the beginning that tonight I’ve been thinking about Oliver Cromwell, and what got me started on that was a speech of his, one he gave in the House of Commons, and which was repeated in that House by the MP Leopold Amery, and levelled at Neville Chamberlain, during the Phony War of 1939 – 40. I offer it now, to the Chief Executive of Celtic.
“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
On that note, I’ll say no more on the subject … for now.
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