My friends in Celtic, in the corresponding article a year ago I put our chances of losing the league as high as 30%. The rational behind this was:
- Newco were actually closer to us than the league table indicated and I expected them to improve,
- Teams have a shelf life and that (winning) Celtic squad looked to be nearing the end.
- It is by no means down to this alone, but I wrote, “If the virus gets into the Celtic squad, we will not win the league.” It did and we didn’t.
What I did not expect was the scale of the collapse. In my Celtic supporting experience, it is only eclipsed by season 1977-78, when a double winning Celtic team finished trophy-less, fifth in the league and out of Europe.
So where did it go wrong? I think we can go as far back as Brendan Rodgers not being released from his contract in August 2018 to allow him to go to China. The writing was on the wall then, so when he found a club that would both pay him a huge contract and meet the release terms on his Celtic deal, we should have been better prepared.
Let’s be clear: Neil Lennon did brilliantly taking over from Brendan. He kept the ship afloat, delivered the league and Scottish Cup, under the circumstances, that was an outstanding return. However, I doubt if even Neil himself believes he was wise to take the job permanently. This was a mistake by Neil, his advisors and most of all, by Celtic.
Objectively, what followed in season 2019-20 flies in the face of this assertion. Despite our customary Champions League qualification debacle, we finished ahead of Lazio and Rennes to top our Europa League group. The League Cup was won in memorable, if not convincing, style, nine-in-a-row was delivered, and when the Scottish Cup Final was eventually played, the quadruple treble.
It was as though the muscle memory at the club got us through that season but we all saw Newco boss us at Celtic Park. The portents were clear.
Should Neil have been relieved of his duties in October, when it was evident we were such a shambles on the field, despite winning all five trophies he competed for at that stage? Probably, but that question is all about who would come in to replace him. John Kennedy as an interim was not necessarily going to change direction. When Neil eventually left the building in February, our season was shot to pieces and he endured torrid months.
A clean break in February should have been a huge advantage, you get months to prep for the new season. Most of that time was wasted on a failed pursuit of Eddie Howe. Ange Postecoglou was sitting by his phone waiting on the call, had he been offer the position when Howe’s agent floated the first curve ball at Easter, we may still be in the Champions League. This was also a mistake.
So where are we now? If we go on to qualify for the Europa League group stage, last night’s defeat will have no more bearing on Celtic than the Lincoln Red Imps game in Gibraltar that started the Brendan Rodgers era. We were never going to reach the Champions League group stage this season through the League Route.
Our primary objective is to win the league; on the back of Wednesday night’s evidence, we look well short. There are, however, reasons to Park the Panic for a few weeks. We have spent over £12m on three players, only the cheapest of whom, 19-year-old Liel Abada, has played. Carl Starfelt (26) and Kyogo Furuhashi (also 26) are now available for selection, they will improve defence and attack.
We will sign a goalkeeper and a right back. Odsonne Edouard and Boli Bolingoli are almost certain to move on, both will be replaced and bring in enough cash to recruit for other areas of the team. I hope Ryan Christie extends his current deal, but if he goes, Ange has more scope to shuffle his pack.
This degree of player turnover should have happened a year ago. It didn’t because of that fabled record. I believe that without that looming milestone, Neil Lennon would also have gone last summer.
The decision to keep the squad together last year was thought less risky than undertaking significant change, especially with international travel restricted for most of the year and football curtailed, limiting, and in some circumstances eliminating, scouting opportunities. Faced with a choice between keep what you have or buy blind, Celtic chose the former (with a goalkeeping exception). Despite your hindsight, you would have made the same decision then.
We do not have a contemporary reference for the level of squad turnover that is currently underway. The only historical equivalent is 1997, when an equally chaotic summer thrust the club forward, coincidentally, when we broke the mould and looked for a manager with experience in Japan.
Despite the toll the pandemic placed on Celtic’s finances, the club is structurally strong. It has excellent long-term commercial deals that continue to perform, healthy ticket sales and a valuable squad that can be traded. We were always going to emerge from this crisis battered but not broken.
The same is not true at Ibrox. Newco need Champions League money this season, in losing the league, we opened a door for them to escape the consequence of Uefa Financial Fair Play. I bored you with the details on this before so will be brief here.
Newco have run a persistent operating loss since their formation in 2012, most recently reported at around £1m per month – and that was pre-pandemic. They are out of FFP road, only Champions League money will prevent a collapse. New investors cannot help here, for FFP, spend must be balanced by football generated income.
What happens in their qualification tie against Malmo and if they progress, in the subsequent play-off round, will go a long way to determine how competitive the league race is over the next decade. It is the sting in the tale of losing such a momentous title.
Right now our chances of winning the league are probably 30% – held back by so many unknowns, but despite the recent hit to finances, I expect the club to sanction a larger spend this summer than has ever happened at a Scottish football club. We can tip the balance in the weeks ahead.
The hurt of missing the 10 will last forever, or at least, until we get close enough to dream again. It is now part of our narrative. I hope we will look back on the experiences of season 2020-21 as a touchstone, the harsh lesson that propelled us forward.
Enjoy your Celtic and continue to take care.