My friends in Celtic, 2022 was not the transformational year 2021 was, but the heavy lifting on that front had already been done. We saw the return of the league title, the League Cup and Champions League group stage football. Of the main annual objectives, only the Scottish Cup escaped.
The summer’s transfer business was limited to securing loan signings who were already at the club and enhancing the squad. None of the newly recruited players in the last window have made it to regular starter status. Sead Haksabanovic (23) looks very much at home in a Celtic strip, while Alexandro Bernabei (21) will continue to improve.
Michael Nicholson continues his habit of signing players early in the transfer window, or in the case of Alasdair Johnston, Yuki Kobayashi and Tomoki Iwata, before the window opens on 1 January. It is a great help to get them in early but know it will not always be possible.
We have gorged on the Japanese market. The player count now stands at six, with a Greek-Australian manager recruited from Yokohama. The return on investment from Japan has been significantly higher than what would be possible in the UK, or perhaps anywhere in Europe. The Law of Diminishing Returns has to kick in eventually. Can Ange’s sixth signing from Japan be as effective as his first? When will a flood of others see what we are doing in Japan and close the value gap?
Football is never stable. What works today will not work the same in future, we need to continue to learn about new value markets. For now, we need to exploit the commercial opportunities available from having so many Japanese players on the books. Get to Japan in the summer, Celtic.
Some years ago you and I discussed how little Big Club experience our backroom team had. For most, Celtic was by some way their biggest club. This meant our learning was from less-resourced places. That changed when Brendan Rodgers arrived in 2016. It was as though the lights were switched on. Training and preparations were upgraded. I heard the returning Neil Lennon was so impressed he pretty-much kept the same tune playing.
While Brendan did great things here, he never got recruitment right. At significant expense, he appointed a head of recruitment who had bombed elsewhere and did no better at Celtic. Brendan made players better, but his signings success or fail metric was unflattering. As when at Liverpool, he played the fans and media to his own benefit at Celtic. As at Liverpool, he was soon found out by both here too.
Our head of recruitment, Mark Lawwell, came from a similar role at City Group, where he worked with Ange at their Japanese stable club, Yokohama. City Group are the best-resourced football operation on the planet. Their knowledge led to Ange being appointed at Celtic and the subsequent flow of players from Japan. We recruited a whole lot of corporate learning when Mark (formally) joined this year, his influence has already been transformational.
2022 did not see significant funds come in from player sales, a revenue stream that has kept the ship sailing in previous years. This has to change going forward. If we are to make genuine steps to improve, we have to recruit well and sell at a large profit. Anything else is like playing Abide with Me on the deck. Should one or two leave in January, it will be interesting to see what they go for. This will tell you as much about our forward prospects as the league table at that time.
You can never master everything in sport. Newco’s run to the Europa League Final (even typing this, I still cannot believe it) demonstrated what can be achieved by a club with smaller resources that we have. Reading the reviews of their recruitment head, you would think he has failed, which is not true. His recruits delivered a European final and some left for huge money. Still, while we have to be respectful of what this opponent can do (including on Monday), I don’t think we should be spooked by them.
They lost tens of millions for years to keep a team together, while some players got old, some lost form and others ran down their contracts. That model was low on short-term risk, delivering two domestic trophies and several good European runs, but left them with a squad with reduced resale value and under Uefa financial monitoring.
We will never win everything but getting the strategic direction of the club right – as I believe we have – will ensure we win more than most, perhaps more than everyone else put together. There remains a lot of work to do to win the league and earn the lucrative Champions League qualification prize. This cannot be taken for granted, not for a couple of days anyway, at least. A few bad decisions, or poor form, and all could be lost, impinging on our structural dominance.
Celtic are focused on being in the right place when the Champions League restructures in 18 months. Being there will be crucial on our prospects for the next decade. The next step on that journey is on Monday. Enjoy it.
Take care and have a great 2023.