My friends in Celtic, tomorrow we raise the league championship flag, both domestic cups are in the Celtic Park boardroom and within six weeks, we will compete in the Champions League group stage.
This summer, so far, has seen the departure of one automatic first choice player and one occasional starter. Five players arrived, while we extended the contracts of Callum McGregor, Kyogo and Daizen Maeda. The most disruptive event of the year was the departure of manager Ange Postecoglou; replaced by the prodigal Brendan Rodgers.
We need to talk about the dirty little subject. I usually have a good handle on what net cash figure to expect from the Celtic accounts. They trend and vary based on previous cup runs and European progress. Right now, it is difficult to know for sure. Last term, Champions League income returned for the first time in five years, we ‘sold’ a manager and post-yearend sold Jota for £25m, although payments may be staggered and there will be a distribution to Benfica.
What we know for sure is that if you see a red haired man standing at an ATM, say “Hi, Michael”, as there is a good chance it will be Michael Nicholson, unable to suppress the urge to put his Celtic card into a cash machine every time he passes one, just to stare at the balance!
At the end of June 2022 we had just shy of £32m in the bank, up on the £26m when the interims were concluded six months earlier. Our interims at 31 December 2022 showed a staggering net cash position of £59m, £33m up on a year earlier.
More than half of the net proceeds from Jota’s sale have gone out the door already to pay for the acquisition of five new players, but our position (after post-yearend transfer business) will be more than £40m better than it was last year, which itself was a healthy position.
What to do with that money? The nouveau riche notoriously waste money, but it’s Michael, not Viv Nicholson, in charge at Celtic, so don’t expect us to spend, spend, spend on short-term hits. We have continued to invest in strategy: buy players who can either immediately earn a spot in the first team, or who have the potential to get there. More of the first team will earn improved contracts, hopefully allowing the manager a settled core to build on.
But we are not here for the money, we are here for the football, and on that front, there is a lot of work to do. The champions of Scotland are on the cusp of being Champions League regulars. To make that a reality, Celtic need to improve the rate they earn Uefa coefficient points. Another season with only two draws among the defeats is not going to cut it, nor can we expect Newco to reach the latter stages of the Europa League so regularly.
This is the last season with Champions League groups as they currently are. From next season, teams who qualify for the competition proper will play eight games, not six. That raises TV appearances and all match related income by 33% over current group stage income, with a subsequent play-off tie up for grabs before the knockout rounds start. It is a game changer for the new season’s Scottish champions, even at Celtic’s current income level.
As ever, everything comes down to who will win the most important league title in Europe – I am not exaggerating. Nowhere can the title be so transformational, nowhere is interest in the game greater. The Scottish population watch league football more than any other country by some margin. It is not the most skilful, it just matters more than anywhere else – neither you nor I need attendance stats to know this is true, it’s why we spend so much time hoping, dreaming and reading stuff like this. Massive clubs in England lose the league and their fans shrug, no one shugs in this town.
Newco lost several first team players without compensation, they took what resources they have, and assembled a squad who are at their peak. None of them is likely to appreciate in value. Instead of copying the Celtic strategy, they are living for today. Sign experienced, physically stronger journeymen, and see if they can out-muscle Celtic’s shorter, younger players, with more potential.
Credit where it’s due, this is a coherent strategy. It may even help them earn coefficient points in the Europa League, if that’s where they end up. Lose the league, and they are right royally screwed, but that’s a worry for next year. For now, it’s all about that most important league title in Europe.
Before a ball is kicked, no one would swap the Celtic squad for the Newco squad. On paper, we win again. But anyone who tells you Celtic winning the league this season is a certainty is unfamiliar with the vagaries of the game. Should Newco qualify for the Champions League, their ‘live for today’ strategy will surely see them invoke the memory of the aforementioned Liv.
I expect a real challenge. We lost managerial continuity, we have a new tactical plan, and I remain fearful that we will be bullied (euphemism) in the middle of the park in games that matter.
Our board’s mantra for many years was “We make decisions on what is best for Celtic without reference to what happens elsewhere.” This worked across an era when Rangers went into liquidation, for the want of banking Champions League income to cover the possibility of an adverse court verdict. We did not follow the lemming over the cliff, but in those difficult years, the pages of CQN were full of advocates to be as ‘ambitious’ as David Murray. We lost several league titles doing the right thing, it was a bitter time best not relived.
I trust the manager, the scouts and the treble-winning players, but our chances of us winning the league this season is no more than 67%. Celtic is our gift; enjoy tomorrow, enjoy the season and let’ s hope for an era defining title win.