My friends in Celtic, we finish the year top of the league having just schooled our nearest rivals for the second time in two games. A dip in form ended just in time to see the club collect nine points from three games, with an important trip to St Mirren to complete before the winter break. All is right for three-in-a-row.
So why am I so worried? It’s about the strategic direction the club takes going forward. I don’t want to just win the league, or even just qualify for the Champions League. I am 56 years old, I want to see Celtic dive deep into that tournament. I want to see us achieve what Neil Lennon and Gordon Strachan did in Europe, even if the achievements of Jock Stein’s era are nothing more than a fantasy.
If we get everything right, I believe a successful football club can come from our league and achieve what the best in Holland or Portugal have done. To get there, we need to double down on what we are good at, improve where we can and avoid the obvious pitfalls.
Since 2021 we have concentrated development resources into players (largely) under 24 years old. Augmented by the significant contribution of a then-unknown (i.e. risky) Kyogo, this has delivered an enormous haul of trophies. Celtic finished a distant second in 2021 but have dropped only two domestic trophies since, a period in which their main rivals reached significant milestones in European competition.
Finding and developing players of the calibre of Carter-Vickers, Jota, Hatate, Maeda, O’Riley and Abada is so obviously where Celtic are as a club, it defies explanation (but here we are). The aforementioned benefited from arriving at the club during a period of rebuilt. In the squad, goalkeeper, defence, midfield and attack were all overhauled. The new arrivals got gametime and soon flourished.
This summer, our man outlays went on Nawrocki €5m, Palma, €4.75m, Lagerbielke €3.4m, Holm €3m, with an option to buy Bernardo for €6m. Palma was first to get a sustained opportunity and has thrived, scoring in the Champions League and recording assists in important games.
After a run of only three starts, Paulo Bernardo was the toast of Celtic Park. He contributes every inch as much as Matt O’Riley and at €6m is an absolute steal – IF we contribute to develop him correctly, and not allow him to wither on the vine.
Odin Holm (20) has the potential to be every bit as good as Paulo and Matt. He has had a terrible time with illness since arriving in Glasgow, but he will fully recuperate and by his peak years will be performing in a top European league.
For reasons I have not been able to fathom, Gustaf Lagerbielke’s face doesn’t seem to fit. The player has scarcely taken to the field, and when he did, he scored a Champions League winner, but minds have been made up.
On the other hand, great things are expected of Maik Nawrocki. He has endured persistent injuries since August, and was thrown into the deep end yesterday, but the consensus at Lennoxtown is that he will also play his peak years in a top European league.
If Celtic have been exceptional at anything in recent years, it is finding and developing great prospects. We need to do more of this, we need to look for ways to improve it, and we need to lead the club with this exceptional strategy. Convince the footballing world, if you have talent, Celtic will find it and grow it into something great.
Luck plays a part in football. Injuries, illness and opportunity can all determine whether or not a player is successful. But in this respect anyway, luck eventually evens itself out. Can we all agree, let’s have more of Cater-Vickers, Nawrocki, Jota, Palma, Abada, Holm and Hatate.
So with the strategic plan clearly so successful why am I worried? We lose two league games, get our backsides handed to us in Madrid, and we want a quick and lazy fix (which will not work).
This “we need more experienced players” harks back to past successes, like the phenomenal Scott Sinclair. But Scott came 8 years ago and the world has changed since then. “More experience players” means fewer like Nawrocki and more like Nat Phillips. Nat is 26, has experience in the EPL and Champions League with Liverpool and is exactly the player we can expect to sign when we go for “more experience”.
Nat is not the only example. Let me disturb your afternoon with memories of Duffy, Laxalt, Bauer, Marvelous Marvin Compper, Gamboa, Toure and (still on the payroll) James McCarthy! Look across the city. They have gone full pelt with this strategy; Lammers, Dessers, Danilo, Dowell, the wee boy with the tints in his hair, Davies and Lundstrum.
It’s not cheap either. Despite being universally acknowledged as being rubbish, they have a higher payroll than Celtic; Dessers is on £30k per week and that big lump Lundstrum banks £40k a week to traipse around in Callum McGregor’s shadow.
It is a strategy, but it’s a rubbish one. It leads to a development dead end, not just with respect of the players, but for the club as a whole. The chances of bringing a Scott Sinclair-type talent to Scottish football are remote, this is what “more experienced” looks like and it isn’t pretty.
This is where we are: Nawrocki or Phillips, Bernardo or Lammers. There is only one way forward for Celtic, do more of what we are good at, do it ruthlessly, without exception. Even Brendan should have personal developmental goals. This is where Alex Ferguson was so exceptional and others (Martin, even Jock), didn’t adapt. Managers need to be confident enough to disarm and learn.
It’s also worth correcting a commonly held belief that Celtic have a particularly young team. If our preferred starting 11 includes Abada and Hatate instead of Palma and Bernardo in yesterday’s line-up, the average age is 26.6 years. We are a team with a decent range of youth and experience.
Jota, Carter-Vickers et al gave us a reputation as a great place to for a young prospect to come to. If we screw up with the (also very good) most recent crop of recruits, we will not get next season’s crop, they will go elsewhere.
The next two transfer windows are pivotal to the direction of the club. The manner in which we won the game yesterday, with Bernardo and Nawrocki writing the script, adds valuable perspective on where we are and where we should be moving. Double down, be the best and what we are very good at, no reverse gear, no Phillips, Duffys, Comppers in a vain effort to find Sinclair.
Our condolences to the family of Len Murray, Celtic fan, lawyer and twice guest speaker at the CQN Golf Day. Len was a warm man of great intellect and a devastatingly entertaining manner.
Many thanks to those who helped me on CQN this year, Alex Gordon in particular and the two Mods (one on temp vacation) – honestly the worst role in football!
Thanks also for everyone who drops in to give their thoughts or only for a read. I know so many people I respect who read this stuff. Not everyone ‘gets’ this club. You can see the intelletual sneering in some who have left grubby matters like thier football team behind; they have no idea what they have lost. It is a tonic to know my Celtic addition is shared by people I like. This is who we are, it is our link to the generations past and forward, and for some of us, that really matters.
Take care and have a great 2024!