At the start of the season Stephen Boyle considered for CQN Magazine how we should judge Ronny Deila after he’s gone? What should be his legacy? In considering this Stephen argued that we would get a great insight into how the next few years may develop at Celtic. We thought that today we’d highlight what Stephen had to say last summer to see if it provides us with an insight into where the new manager is taking the club…
Jock Stein was sitting in the dugout when I went to my first Celtic match. He was our third manager in almost 80 years. Since Jock left we have 13 managers in less than 40 years. With such steady turnover, it is not too early to think about how we should judge Ronny Deila’s tenure when he leaves.
While trophies in the cabinet are the inevitable currency of football success they are not the only standard by which we should judge our managers. Ronny has a squad and a budget that should make winning the league a formality. A convincing attempt at a treble is overdue. But true success for Ronny, his legacy if he achieves it, will lie in two areas: Europe and youth development.
I am of the generation for which Europe might not be all that matters but it is pretty close to it. Recent years have seen some wonderful nights and the occasional decent run in the Champions League. But we haven’t troubled the scorers in the later stages of European competition for more than decade. We have done that only twice in the last 40 years. Discounting the period when the old board was strangling the Club and Fergus was reviving it, we have had – at the time of writing – 16 chances to participate in the Champions League. We have made it eight times, a 50 per cent success rate. If recent history is our destiny, we should budget on Champions League football only every other year. That’s not the record of European power.
A major part of the problem is a contrived culture of low expectations. Excuse number one: qualification for the Champions League comes at the wrong time of the year for us, making progress to the group stages something of a lottery. If that were true we would expect clubs from leagues that play summer football to feature disproportionately among teams progressing through the qualification process. They don’t. Each season 20 clubs compete in the Final Qualifying Round for ten places. In the last five years, none of the 50 teams that have progressed from that round have been from countries that play summer football. Five times clubs from countries that play league football in July have qualified: Dynamo Kiev and Rubin Kazan have each made it twice and Copenhagen once.
We need to prepare better. For example, we should do more of each season’s transfer business in preceding January. I know that the cream of Europe’s élite will not sign for us then. But they won’t sign for us full stop. Let’s ensure, to the extent possible, that the players who finish one season are those we want to start the next. Second, with four SPFL teams routinely playing in Europe before the end of the Glasgow Fair, have we lobbied with others for an earlier start to the domestic programme? It would help all of the competing clubs as well as creating space for a mid-winter break. Finally, as we have begun to do, we need to tailor what we do all year round to ensure readiness for the qualification matches.
Excuse number two: getting to the group stages is the realistic summit of our ambitions. The root of this notion is that because we play in a league that commands little TV revenue and does not have a sponsor we cannot hope to command the resources that would make us credible challengers at the top table. Playing in the semi-final of the Champions League in four out of eight years as we did in our heyday is likely beyond us. However, we are not as impoverished as the prevailing narrative suggests.
At the end of last season Celtic stood 62nd in UEFA’s rankings. Of the clubs above us, around half had income close to or less than the £75 million we earned in 2012-13. More than 20 generated less than our 2011-12 turnover of £51 million. While we cannot earn enough to compete with the financial titans of the major leagues our income compares very favourably with clubs that routinely achieve better results than us. We were within touching distance of Benfica’s income of around £80 million in 2012-13. They sit fifth in UEFA’s rankings, between Chelsea and Manchester United. Tenth-ranked FC Porto spent £78 million. FC Basel were twentieth. Their budget is a fraction of Celtic’s.
Our problem is not that we cannot or do not spend enough. We do not operate from a biscuit tin. Rather, our spending has not been as effective as that of many other teams with similar or lesser means. If Ronny can wring better and more consistent outcomes from our resources – routinely playing in Europe in March and April – he will leave a Legend.
It is easy to look across Glasgow and poke fun at the opportunities squandered during ‘the journey’ to rebuild from the bottom up. Yet, have we missed a trick, too? In the absence of serious domestic competition, at least in the league, there has been a chance to promote talent from within. Safe in the knowledge that the mistakes youngsters make – and from which they learn – would have no lasting effect on our ability to win the championship, we could and should have blooded more players, addressing a long-standing weakness at the Club.
If there is one thing a Celtic crowd craves almost as much as glittering football that delivers prizes it is seeing one of our own grow and succeed. We might not cut a £0.5 million utility player from the English Championship much slack. We will do it for the boy who comes through the ranks and makes his debut as a teenager. Did you care more about whether Stephen Crainey or Lee Naylor made it? David Marshall or Magnus Hedman?
With the exception of James Forrest and, time will tell, Liam Henderson, none of the prospects from our storied youth development operation has made it in the last four years. This failure to grow our own is long-standing. In the last decade, only Aiden McGeady, Shaun Maloney and Stephen McManus have commanded a first team place. Going back further still, it is difficult to compile a decent team from the last 20 years made-up solely of home-grown players.
It isn’t that we cannot develop talent. Fraser Forster, Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama each left a much better player than when he arrived. Scotland’s top division is littered with guys who spent their teenage years at Celtic but now earn a living elsewhere. Nor is there a problem in producing winning sides below first team level: the Under-19s/20s have won their league five years on the spin and in eight of the last 11.
Lennoxtown is an excellent facility, as befits capital expenditure of £8 million. It has been open more than for seven years. We have scouts, coaches, sports scientists and physios aplenty. The partnership with St Ninian’s High School in Kirkintilloch, which takes seriously the idea that excellence is born of practice, is in its sixth season. In short, it is not for the want of effort that the flow of players into the first team resembles a trickle more than a flood.
Perhaps these investments will soon bear fruit. I hope they do. Perhaps we should invest more in the Academy, which would necessarily mean less spent elsewhere, possibly on the first team squad. That might be the right decision. Whatever the answer, our aim should be to produce considerably more high quality players from within.
Ronny Deila’s reputation did not travel before him. However, what we know is that he wants to develop his charges. If he manages that, fielding four or more Academy graduates in Champions League matches in April, his Legend will truly be secure.
Our new manager is a calculated risk. He is more of a risk than any of the large number of players we have recruited during our Moneyball years. Buying players is a portfolio management game, like venture capital or a Hollywood studio: you need only a few successes to come out ahead. You choose manages one at a time. There is no pooling of risk. Ronny could fail on the park and we would still in all likelihood win the league. But the gamble is that this unheralded Norwegian might remedy our structural under-performance in Europe and youth development. If Ronny does that he’ll be very fondly remembered, perhaps revered.
Words: Stephen Boyle