Celtic are about to embark on their fourth season as the last remaining Superpower in Scottish football. The old wars were won, while current challenges on the domestic front are accomplished with ease, but many questions remain about the club’s place in the world, what it’s objectives should be and how best to deliver them.
My expectation is that Celtic’s annual accounts, which will be released next month, will show they club washed its face, largely aided by the sale of Fraser Forster, but turnover is likely to be around 35% below the peak figure from season 2012-13, where we progressed to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, selling tickets and merchandise by the ton.
Season ticket sales are down around 10,000 from their peak a decade ago, reflecting the lack of domestic competition, an overhang of the economic climate, and – I expect – a tail off from what was an unsustainable high during the years of regrowth after the long, dark, 90s. The good news is the distress rate appears to have bottomed out. New blood has replaced old in many parts of the stands, as many learn to appreciate The Game for its sporting merit, not simply a means to three points.
We had a terrible start to the Ronny Deila era. We huffed and puffed in Iceland, were torn apart in Poland, but the performance against Legia at Murrayfield was nothing short of a capitulation. From the opening minute of the game we were worse, much worse, than we were in Warsaw.
Results and performances remained disappointing for months as Aberdeen regularly led the league into the new year, but signs of recovery appeared in the Europa League, where we qualified for the knock out stages and put on two credible performances against Inter.
Last autumn Ronny was under pressure. In another era, this could have been overbearing pressure. The change in managers brought a change in tactics, training and personal objectives, which disoriented the club. It also meant that we didn’t have a recruitment strategy in place for the new requirements.
There are many long term strategic threats, but if Celtic ever lose a league again, it’s likely to be when they embark on such an overwhelming technical change. If we do this again, we need to anticipate the shock and compensate accordingly.
Sporting objectives remain clear: win the league every season “forever and ever” and qualify for the Champions League group stages. Having given this some thought, I cannot see the scenario when we will lose the Scottish league title.
A horizon exists in Scottish football, no one can see beyond 10-in-a-row. This season WILL be five-in-a-row, most bookies are offering 1/33, a 3% return on your money, on this outcome. After that the countdown to 10 will grow louder, but 10 is not a real horizon, it just exists because Jock Stein’s ways were eventually copied. He had no mystical touch, only good strategy.
Rangers should never had stopped at 9. The money they had gave them an enormous advantage. Wim Jansen arrived from nowhere (Japan) with half a team signed by Jock Brown. It defied logic how we won that title, but it’s also clear than many at Ibrox had put their tools away before the start of that season. There is a warning here for Celtic. The latter parts of the Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon eras were all characterised by less innovative signings. More scouting trips to Edinburgh, fewer to Cracow, and the like. When the players, manager or scouts get weary, teams fail.
Achieving Champions League group stage qualification is the most difficult challenge Celtic face. We are clearly a better team than Qarabag, and have considerably more resources, but much of Wednesday night was spent worrying if the goal would come, and about what we would face in Baku. Even if we’re successful, strong unseeded teams will await in our section of the next round draw.
We are more than good enough to win league after league, but we’re not more than good enough to qualify for Champions League after Champions League. This should be Celtic’s objective for the next year – arrive in next summers’ qualifiers with a much better team.
The success of this will depend on Ronny’s ability to turn potential into actual European class players. He can do this, but he’ll need a tail wind. In particular, we have to hope that an earlier, ‘recruit from Edinburgh’ strategy, has not been redeployed in the form of a ‘recruit from Dundee’ one.
There are objective measurements we can point to. We are sound financially, pay our bills when due, have seen off all domestic competitors, will report more than 40,000 season ticket holders, a buoyant retail business and strong commercial partnerships. The stadium looks incredible, whoever conceived of the Celtic Way deserves some credit – but please – finish the job.
Copy what we saw at Murrayfield, put turnstiles at the perimeter of the footprint, build fan zones, build a café outside the ground. 30 years from now people will not sit in stadiums like Celtic Park, they will have better facilities, start planning for them now.
As anyone will tell you, football is a results business, and results over the next four weeks will have an enormous bearing on what state we feel the club is in. Defeat will not mean we are on the wrong path any more than victories mean we are on the right path, but it’s the game we play, so ‘play on’.