The changes over the last decade have been so profound, and are now so established, it’s difficult to recall how different the balance of power was back then. In 2004, a small handful of people had complete control over the Celtic media narrative.
Was Martin O’Neill going to Leeds United? He was, you were told he was, live on the country’s most listened to radio programme. By a former Celtic player, too. Objectivity and the opportunity to challenge was controlled by the very people who were writing the headlines.
For years, this was the way it was, and it was poisoning Celtic. The ‘old board’ were worthy of little better, but Fergus McCann was brutally attacked. He was the man who would bring equality and respect to our club and fans, but he was demonised by lazy hacks who cared little for truth. So much so, he was booed by the very people who celebrated the league title his vision brought. It was a bitter experience for many.
Martin O’Neill, in some respects, like The Man 35 years before him, brought a force of personality so strong, the gaggle of critics could only stand back in awe, but the system had a flaw. Stein brought unimaginable success with little more than unimaginable brilliance. O’Neill used money, lots of it. More than Celtic were earning. His whirlwind high-spending start at Celtic ended with the £6m signing of John Hartson in 2001, little over a year after he took the job.
Martin would spend another four years working within a budget; not one that brought expenditure into line with income, we continued to lose millions each year, but one which limited signings to a fraction of what was spent on Hartson, Lennon and Sutton.
While those four years were among the most exciting in our history, it was an unhappy era.
Put yourself back in time for a moment. Celtic are champions and have beaten Ajax to qualify for the Champions League for the first time. We were imperious, had beaten Rangers 6-2 and took to a field in Turin to final take part in a tournament which for so long appeared out of our reach.
Juventus went 2-0 up but back came Celtic. I worked with a Rangers fan who was at a lower league game that night. When we equalised, his friend text “I don’t think I can take this anymore”. We had come from nowhere, an irrelevance in Scottish football, but here we were, champions of Scotland and level against Juventus.
At that moment, anything was possible. For the first time in decades, we thought, maybe just…
We soon learned that it takes more than honest endeavour to win in Italy, and visits to Portugal and Norway provided a rude awakening. This was not ’67 all over again, there was a lot of work to do, we just needed to keep the pedal to the metal.
Two years after that defeat in Turin we came close to winning our second European trophy in Seville, with a team which had, pretty much, been in place for three years. We were getting the hang of European football, but the team was aging.
For reasons that defy logic, history records the Seville season as the highlight of that team, but the achievements of season 2003-04, with 25 consecutive league wins, and eliminating Barcelona from Europe, were vastly greater.
Then the party was over. The Great Swede left, we’d lost £35m in a few short years, and reality was acknowledged; all clubs need to live within their means, or face liquidation. The climb-down was necessary, but I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t hard.
Back then few people read football clubs accounts, even though Celtic posted copies to over 20,000 shareholders, but all the clues were there, Celtic had to stem the flow. We lost £7m in the Seville season alone; wages to players and coaches were unsustainable.
Despite this, Celtic were regarded as cautious. We lost £35m over five years; Ranger lost £35m in a single season. If they could pump debt up to £80m and survive, why wouldn’t Celtic? We would learn the answer to this question in 2012, but think back to 2004, thoughts that one of Scotland’s major clubs could be liquidated were ridiculed – often, on CQN.
So how did the media deal with our club in 2004? I was driving to work one morning and had heard “What the Celtic fans want to know, is where is all the Seville money?” once too often. “Where is all the Seville money?” was a toxic question. There was no Seville money, only higher debts.
When I arrived at work I ranted about such lazy reporting. This was calculated reporting of the most pernicious type. A Rangers supporting friend suggested, “Why don’t you start a blog and challenge what they’re saying?” I’d never heard of a blog, but he sat me down and got me going.
The first CQN article, written 10 years ago today, was a modest call to “Ignore the Press”, but just before I pressed publish, I had to select, ‘Allow comments: Yes or No’. I’d no views either way but ‘Yes’ was default, so I left it.
The whole thing, the millions of comments, the hundreds of thousands of pounds raised for those in need, the friendships made, the golfers, the slimmers, those helped in bereavement, the thousands of kids attending our school kitchens each day in Malawi and the countless hours of enjoyment we’ve had, are all down to a default position on Blogger. And a Rangers fan telling me to start the fight back online. Who’d have thought it?
Now, people stop me in the street to talk about Celtic. Can there be a greater joy in life? Thanks for all the help and support.
Celtic yesterday, today, forever.