If Peter Lawwell left the building last year, the final chapter would have been about nine-in-a-row and four consecutive trebles. His legacy (which we will cover at the end of the season) would have been a more straightforward matter to document. Instead, he gets to own a bad season, a cautionary tale to incoming chief executive, Dominic McKay. This job never goes to plan.
He arrived at the club in late 2003 at a time when the lemmings of Scottish football were heading for the cliffs. Celtic had just posted a £11.6m loss despite reaching the Uefa Cup Final, a sum that was dwarfed by Rangers’ £29.6m loss. We lost money every season since Fergus McCann left four years earlier. His first challenge was straightforward, remain competitive and don’t follow Rangers over the edge.
Martin O’Neill was replaced by Gordon Strachan who in his first season had to work with a reduced budget. Revenues grew as the club’s commercial operation matured, so Gordon’s budget soon passed that of Martin’s. Celtic enjoyed a period of financial stability, domestic success and for the first time reached the knock out stages of the Champions League, until then, a fabled nirvana.
If you think this season is the darkest period of Peter’s tenure you have forgotten about 2011. Gordon lost the league for the first time in 2009, Tony Mowbray lost his only title in 2010 and Neil Lennon lost at the first time of asking in 2011. In the autumn of 2011, we dropped 10 points behind Rangers, who were on track for four-in-a-row.
For me, who started writing a blog about the need for financial stability, those years were a real challenge. We were paying our bills but there is no obligation on football fans to take an interest in the club’s accounts, all most want to see is a winning team, and Rangers were winning what mattered. This debate played out for years on CQN. Some of us knew Rangers were going to crash and burn, although it was not until 2011 that I realised how spectacularly that was going to happen. Others on here talked of “Jam tomorrow”.
It was likely but never inevitable that Rangers would become insolvent. Peter chose a path that guaranteed our survival over matching Rangers’ losses. It made him unpopular, but he felt it was the right path to follow. I agreed.
The world changed in season 2011-12. David Murray sold Rangers to Craig Whyte, an experienced insolvency expert. Craig had a plan to liquidate Rangers, phoenix with a Newco and become incarnate as the body and soul of Oldco.
CQN was always active on Rangers finances, they were as pertinent to the success of Celtic as our own, but I went out on a limb in October that year, with what was a prescient blog, The prepack route for Rangers Newco FC. I predicted Rangers liquidation, the consequential space in the SPL, the consequences for the TV deal, sponsorship deals and for other clubs. I explained how Newco would try to join the top flight and finished with a call to arms to stop it, all months before any of it happened.
Celtic said very little during this period but the role Peter Lawwell played in stopping Newco Rangers slipping straight into the top flight was absolute. The prescience and call to arms in that blog and the many that followed in the months to come, were well informed.
The rise of Neil Lennon as manager culminated in that night against Barcelona in November 2012 but the sands were already shifting below our feet. Barcelona was a peak, not a new plateau. Ronny Deila was manager before he was ready. He won leagues but fatefully blew Champions League qualification.
The appointment of Brendan Rodgers was nothing to do with Dermot Desmond watching Newco directors celebrate a semi-final win at Hampden, Dermot was on an aeroplane by then, it was more about chance. Brendan was out of work, a Celtic fan and in need of a place to restore his managerial reputation. Despite the titles, Celtic were flagging. He filled the stands, boosted every revenue stream and won five trophies, before leaving us at the altar of back-to-back trebles.
Few of us were inspired when Neil Lennon was appointed permanent manager after securing that second treble against Hearts. Brendan was sacked by Liverpool, Neil ‘mutual-ed’ by Hibs, by any measure, a downgrade. That night in Rome 14 months ago, when Celtic recorded their first win on Italian soil, the decision look inspired, but not for the first time, the sands were already shifting below our feet.
The collapse this season had been nothing to do with fans not being at games, players isolating or any other nefarious reason. We got our football operations wrong, it is as simple as that. You and I will regret this for a long time, as will Peter Lawwell.
We will lose the league to a Newco Rangers who (pre-crisis) have annual losses approaching Oldco’s when Peter took over. Losing the league hurts, but financial fundamentals ultimately determine the future. This lesson from the Peter Lawwell era will endure. Good luck to Dominic McKay, he has a big sharp suit to fill.