Well, the smile has been well and truly wiped off his face tonight. The strategy he presides over is in utter ruination. His much vaunted ambition to make Celtic a global brand has, in a week, been overturned in spectacular fashion with a Champions League knockout, a tournament organiser threatening to sue and Ronny Delia telling him straight there will be no globetrotting next year.
There should be no doubt at all about this. Celtic Football Club is in a bad place tonight, and the men at the very top of our club are the ones who must carry the can.
I am not going to offer suggestions for removing them. Not right now. Not on this blog. That’s going to require a major effort and a lot of people getting together in the same room with specific goals in mind and specific plans for attaining them.
Yet, for me, the removal of Peter Lawwell is the most important item on the list of Things To Do, because as long as he is at Celtic there will be serious divisions at every level of the football club.
We are now a house divided, and it’s his fault and the fault of those above him that this is so.
Some are going to accuse me of sounding like a hack, or even worse, they will throw at me the lowest word in their vocabulary, a word they don’t even fully understand. I will, doubtless, be labelled a “hun”, but it’s a word I use rarely and only because I know what I mean when I do.
The origins of the word lie in the age of Attila and his nomadic tribes, untamed barbarians who didn’t build civilisations but looted them and burned them down instead. You can see where I have no problem applying the word to certain sub-sects of fans.
In my opinion, Peter Lawwell ticks those boxes too. He has wrought havoc on Celtic Football Club. We are no longer a Family. We are no longer a major club, except in our own country. I see no signs of ambition or intent from him or the people around him.
We are a club lacking a long term vision, and as that vision is supposed to come from those people it is not difficult for me to point the finger of blame in their direction.
Tonight is not about them, or the full scale of what they’ve done. I’ll explore that later. Tonight I want to knock on the head a piece of journalism which, to me, reads as a particularly myopic defence of the indefensible.
There is a lot of guff being talked tonight in defence of the strategy, but that one article in particular, by Graham Speirs, is being held up as proof that “the strategy has been a success.” It hasn’t been a success. It’s been a dismal, shameful failure, but I can’t say that without some examination of his “case”, because I have no doubt what he wrote will be held against those of us who can see the writing on the wall over and over in the next few days.
The main thrust of his piece is that along with good financial results Celtic have won things and had “European football till Christmas” in five of the last six seasons “and in some cases beyond.” He says this as though it represented success in itself. But let’s look at that record for a moment. In fact, let’s track even further back, and look at the last seven seasons, because I think that’s important.
In the first two of those seasons (2007-08, 2008-09) we qualified for the Champions League Group Stages automatically, by virtue of having won the title the year before. In 2007-08 we reached the Champions League Round of 16, and we were finally beaten by Barcelona after getting out of a group including AC Milan and Benfica. This was a good year for the club.
The playing squad that year included the likes of Boruc, Hinkel, Nakamura, Venegoor of Hesselink, Aiden McGeady, Jarosik and Massimo Donati. That was the year we bought Scott Brown, the year we bought Scott McDonald, the year Samaras came on loan.
The following year – the first of Speirs six – we spent money on Loovens and Maloney, but it was frankly abysmal, and the first sign that something inside our club was stinking to high heaven. A disastrous Champions League campaign saw us finish bottom of a group made up of Aalborg, Villareal and Man Utd.
The need for some firepower in the team was obvious to anyone who watched us, with the game against the Danish club at Celtic Park offering a particularly scathing example – a 0-0 which was responsible for our European exit. The need for a potent scorer was obvious.
It was ignored. In the January window we signed Wilo Flood instead. Rangers won the title. The decline had begun.
Gordon Strachan left at the end of the season, and with him Venegoor, Nakamura, Balde, Hartley, Donati, Caldwell and Barry Robson. Scott McDonald went in the January window. By then things had already taken a fairly brutal turn.
When Strachan left Celtic took the “safe”, and the cheap, option, and they appointed Tony Mowbray. Few of us disagreed with the move, if we’re being honest, but we’d gone from Martin O’Neill to Gordon to a guy who had one major success in his career, winning a Championship with West Brom. He lost a number of players, but he also brought in a number. They were nowhere near as good.
Ki Seung Yung looked to have quality, but the signing of Mark Antoine Fortune was a disaster, as was that of Morten Rasmussen. Jos Hoovield was not a great signing and the bizarre Danny Fox saga still baffles me today.
The highlight, if we can call it that, was the January window signing of veteran Robbie Keane, on loan, as our “replacement” for Scott McDonald, who’s transfer to Middlesbrough netted us £3.5 million. It says a lot for the sheer insanity inside Celtic Park, and the lack of forward thinking, that McDonald finished the season our second top scorer. Keane finished first.
Europe was a disaster that year. We went out of the Champions League in the qualifiers against Arsenal – no shame there, of course – but our Europa League experience was shambolic. In a group of Rapid Vienna, Hamburg and Hapoel Tel Aviv we won a single match, drew three and lost two. We finished third, with six points.
Rangers again won the title and in March 2010 we appointed Neil Lennon as interim manager after the departure of Mowbray. We had replaced a man who’d failed to cope with the pressure of the Celtic job, but who nevertheless had a managerial pedigree behind him, with someone who had never taken control of a first team game in his life.
Most of us accepted Neil as a short-term answer, never expecting it to be more than that.
Despite being assured that a search had been conducted for a new head coach, Lennon got the job on a full-time basis. Charlie Mulgrew, Cha Du Ri and Joe Ledley were brought to the club on free transfers. Boruc and McManus were both sold for cash, netting a cool £3 million. Murphy, Juarez, Kayal and Hooper were added to the squad, and for big money, it has to be said.
Disaster struck. We were knocked out of the Champions League and then the Europa League in quick succession. Aiden McGeady was sold to plug the financial gap. It was the first clear evidence that the playing squad was funding the business instead of the other way around. It confirmed what many of us had been saying since the failure in January two years before allowed Rangers to win the title; this was a club putting the balance sheet first. The club failed to win the league that season … our third failure to do so in a row.
So, of Speirs six seasons, and for our own seven, our record in the first four is that we qualified for the Champions League groups automatically twice, by virtue of winning the title in the previous year. The first time, with a seriously strong squad, we reached the last sixteen.
I find it curious that Speirs has chosen the following year from which to base his conclusions, the year in which we suffered disaster in the groups and lost our league title.
The following year, Speirs second of six, we crashed out of the Champions League in a qualifier and were awful in the Europa League. In Speirs third season, we went out of both competitions early and there was no European football on the horizon as Santa paid his visits.
Worse than that; in all three of Graham Speirs’ first three highlighted years of the strategy’s “success” we finished second in Scotland to Rangers.
And what of the fourth European season he highlights?
Our board had learned so much from the previous year – no title, and two early European knockouts – that we once again sent the manager into the same arena almost scandalously unprepared.
We bought Mo Bangura, who’s goal tally before and since was wholly unimpressive, and an unknown called Victor Wanyama, for a combined total of £3.1 million. We also signed Kelvin Wilson and Adam Matthews on free transfers, bringing in £850,000 for Shaun Maloney. Net spend, just over £2 million. We were still nowhere near equipped for European football, and it showed.
We went on to win a single game in a Europa League group of Rennes, Atletico Madrid and Udinese. In itself, this might have been excused except that we only got there by virtue of Sion’s idiotic decision to field ineligible players against us in the qualifying round.
Those players weren’t world beaters, but they had the measure of our team by quite some considerable distance, getting a credible 0-0 draw at Celtic Park before beating us comfortably at home. That result was scandalous, and UEFA’s decision to ban their fellow Swiss in no way excuses just how diabolical that scoreline was.
That was the year Rangers imploded, collapsed and died. Neil Lennon’s team won the league championship shortly before the death of their biggest rivals was confirmed. McCoist’s team had blown a massive league lead, with a full squad. There were no excuses. We were the better team and we deserved to win back our crown.
Yet, as previously noted, in Europe, the first four of Speirs “six seasons” had been a shambles, and that year was our first title win.
It is the fifth season of the six that stands out, of course, the season before last.
It is hard to believe, but in hindsight it’s that single season that has created the myth that the strategy has been a success, that it has not been doing serious damage to Celtic all the while. The previous four seasons were, in one respect or another, failures, save for the recapturing of the league flag. In none of them did we demonstrate ambition or intent, certainly not in Europe.
Yet in that wonderful following year we were almost supernaturally blessed. Neil Lennon and the team rose above all expectations, and a “strategy” which should have left him staggeringly unprepared for what he accomplished.
To be fully appreciated, Neil’s achievement that year has to be placed in the context of what came before it in the close season.
During that pre-season period we had spent £3.5 million, which had been completely offset by the sale of Ki, for nearly twice that sum. Our two cash signings were to make permanent the loan move of Fraser Forster, for £2 million, and to bring in Efe Ambrose for £1.5 million. We brought in two strikers, Miku and Lassad, on loan, and neither was to play more than a handful of games. There was no net spend. We’d turned a profit.
This was the sum total of our “strengthening” for European football and a crack at the Champions League.
Let’s be clear; this was no “genius” of Peter Lawwell or the strategy. We had settled for being a Europa League standard team, and there’s no question about that. We had accepted that as our level, and spent nothing to improve our position.
Yet, somehow, Neil Lennon found something in those players and elevated their performances when it counted.
Not only did we navigate the qualifiers, but we won three out of six Champions’ League Group games, including that memorable night at Celtic Park when we beat one of the greatest club teams of the last 30 years. In spite of all the restrictions, and downsizing, Lennon had managed to build something. We all prayed he’d be allowed to take the team forward, and grow it into a special side.
We should have known better. Their performances in the Group Stages had elevated the reputations of guys like Wanyama and Hooper, and English clubs started to sniff round them.
Our team and our manager had somehow exceeded the level of ambition in the boardroom. The commercial department sniffed money, and started hammering out the publicity about how a new golden age was on the horizon and we should all buy our tickets for the show.
Yet Bankier, Desmond, Lawwell and the rest were about to spectacularly bring us back down to Earth.
We drew Juventus in the next round. This was our first taste of European football after Christmas since Gordon Strachan’s talented side had come unstuck against Barcelona over two legs. Celtic fans, starved of signs of ambition since then, hoped to see some. Surely, the January window would see us go out and do the business?
We brought in an unknown Australian, Tom Rogic, for £400,000. We signed an Israel defender, Rami Gershon, and the goalkeeper of Trelleborgs, Viktor Noring, both on loan. In the same window, we cut our losses on Mo Bangura and sent him on loan to Elfsborg.
That was how Lennon’s accomplishment was rewarded in January 2013. That was how our board chose to demonstrate its intent, and set us on the path towards restoring our name in Europe, a name that had taken a savage beating over the previous few years.
We seemed to be heading somewhere. They seemed determined to stop us reaching that Promised Land.
Juventus casually swatted us aside, the two leg five goal deficit our worst performance over two games in Europe in our history. Earlier this evening, we equaled that record. It must make our leaders very proud.
The writing had been on the wall since the board’s parsimony allowed Walter Smith’s Rangers to pip us to the league title in 2008-09. This was a club that had begun to go backwards, and one exceptional European season was the only real highlight of an otherwise bleak period.
Graham Speirs calls this a success. He says Celtic is well run.
In truth, I see why he might think that. Always Lawwell and co have been able to deflect criticism and blame someone else, or focus minds elsewhere.
Gordon Strachan had seen his budget cut, and he’d gone from the moment he realised he’d need to do more with less. His replacement was sacked after only eight months. Lennon’s inexperience offered them an alibi for a time and then Rangers collapsed.
Shortly before they did, Lawwell, who’s club hadn’t won a title in three years and who’d suffered the shame of a humiliating double European exit earlier that season, got to have his little moment in the sun where he chortled over Craig Whyte’s claim that Rangers had rejected a £9 million bid for Jelavic. It was shaky ground for a man who’s team had been 15 points behind their rivals only a few months before, but as a piece of theatre it played to the gallery, and his supporters loved it.
These guys are still hiding behind other people tonight, on the back of our latest calamity.
Rangers’ death saw a club that had already lost focus abandon vision and ambition completely. Neil Lennon’s reward for defeating Barcelona and giving us one of the finest football memories of our lives was to see the heart ripped out of the team he had assembled for a pittance.
We went into Europe the following year – last season’s competition – without Victor Wanyama. He had been sold on 11 July, for £12.5 million. The manager was allowed a fraction of that money – £1.6 million for Amido Balde and £2.6 million for Virgil Van Dijk – to “strengthen the team.”
Four days after the Dutchman arrived, and before we took the field in our second qualifying round first leg, Gary Hooper had been sold for £5.5 million. We had gone into the first round games weaker than we finished the previous season and we had weakened again on the way into the second round.
Despite that, the manager steered us through that round – although Mo Bangura and Elfsborg gave us one hell of a fright. We’d been robbed of our top scorer and it showed. We were only able to beat them 1-0 over the two legs.
As a reward, Neil Lennon was allowed £1 million to sign Derk Boerrigter.
Were we stronger than we were before the tie? No, of course we weren’t. That’s why what happened next defied belief. We weakened again, allowing Kelvin Wilson to leave for Forest, netting another £2.5 million, inflating the balance sheet some more, and setting us up for a clash in Karagandy where everything hung by a thread.
That night, we lost 2-0, in an unbelievably inept display, but one that can be excused by the severe feeling of shell-shock which must have been reverberating around the dressing room.
I wrote one of the most scathing articles I’ve ever penned in my life in the aftermath of that game. No lessons were learned because Neil found something in the team again, pulled them up and drove them to victory in the return leg.
It was the last hurrah, at least in Europe. The guts had been ripped out of Neil’s side, and he himself seemed to lose a lot of his spirit at the same time. Nir Biton and Temo Pukki arrived, for a combined total of £3.1 million, to prepare his shattered side for the groups.
That was nowhere near good enough, and the group games were a calamity. Five defeats in six matches culminated in a 6-1 thrashing in Barcelona. We were back to where we’d been two years before, and it was no more than what we deserved for gambling so long with charcoal dice.
Neil was given £3 million in January, after it was too late, for Johansen and Griffiths. The signing of the striker was a gamble, but a welcome one at the time. The signing of Johansen had a sting in the tail, as we realised he would be replacing Joe Ledley, who left on a free transfer.
Somehow, we’d been weakened again.
The season ended, and Neil Lennon walked. We don’t know for sure why, but we do know he had wanted to make sure the side was not weakened further, and to that end had promised contract talks to Samaras and Commons. The midfielder still had some time to go on his deal, which gave Lawwell and co their alibi for not offering him a new one. Samaras was allowed to run down the remainder of his deal, and he left claiming the club had not even bothered to talk to him.
Lennon left shortly afterwards. There was much speculation about who would replace him, including some fanciful rubbish about Roy Keane. When Ronny Deila’s name emerged it looked like a promising sign, a step in a new direction. It later transpired he’d first been considered in the role of Lennon’s assistant, and had been mooted to come in as number two under the Irishman Keane.
At his first press conference he was ambushed twice by the chief executive; first over the impending signing of Craig Gordon, who he’d never seen and knew nothing about, and the second time over the CEO’s directive that he must appoint someone with “local knowledge” as his number two. I questioned that appalling intervention in a piece shortly afterwards.
Deila has spent no money. Samaras has gone, and Tony Watt followed him out the door. The manager had Gordon imposed on him from above, as a certain replacement for Fraser Forster, and of course John Collins was appointed to work with him as assistant.
His faith in the current squad was given form in two decisions he made before last week’s game. The first was to play young Callum McGregor on one wing. The second was to play a player he’d signed on loan only two days before, Jo Inge Berget, on the other.
Celtic crashed out of the Champions League earlier, by an aggregate score of 6-1, to a team from Poland, in one of the worst reversals in our history.
Graham Speirs thinks no questions need answering. He thinks the strategy has been a success. That three league titles, two early exits from Europe, four disastrous group campaigns and one notable success, as well as the odd domestic cup (where, again, we’ve woefully under performed) is a good return over six years, that and a set of balanced books.
Well, I want to know just one thing. When did we add succulent lamb to the menu at Celtic Park?
Tonight, for the first time ever, Celtic fans chanted for the sacking of the CEO. He better get used to hearing that particular song. This catastrophe – for which Ronny Deila will pay, of course, with the further downsizing of an already shattered team – is the culmination of years of expectation management, of lowering ambition and of the balance sheet coming first.
Mark my words … tonight is a turning point. Everything has changed.
I see a Bad Moon Rising. I see trouble on the way.
Lawwell’s not laughing anymore.
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