It is never wise to build your hopes up going into a transfer window if you’re a Celtic fan. Years of failing to get deals over the line and deciding that we go as is, condition you for fearing the worst. None the less with Brendan Rodgers demanding quality be brought during the final two months of last year and even the captain Callum MacGregor getting in on the act in December, we assumed surely they had some players lined up this January. However it’s an old cliché but none the less true – it’s the hope that kills you.
To have so much money sitting in the bank and to have come way with so little beggars belief. This January has been “Willo Flood” on steroids. To have talked the talked in the manner that we did prior to the start of the transfer window and to finish the month with so little has even taken cynical people such as myself by surprise. Recruitment this season has been nothing other than shambolic and irrespective of how the season ends, head should roll – but knowing Celtic they probably won’t.
Lets’ go back to last summer. Two obvious choices for upgrade were goalkeeper and left back. The signs at the end of last season were pretty obvious with regards to Joe Hart. He has been a good signing. But there are obvious flaws in his game which are getting worse. Right now any corner or free kick sent into our 6 yard box has our hearts in our mouth as he is simply no longer commanding that area. With Celtic’s current account balance so far in the black, this should have been addressed. Instead we have sat on our hands.
As for left back, Greg Taylor is fine for the SPFL and I do feel that some of the stick he gets is unjustified. But he does have obvious flaws – his height and not being the quickest. His deputy last season Bernabei was signed with the hope of replacing him by Ange – despite warnings from the scouts not to buy him. You always give players from a far way country, with a different language and culture time to settle (I’ll come back to this later). But there was no real improvement towards the end of last season and I’m told that Rodgers felt he wasn’t good enough back in July last year. The performances that we have seen from him since (Ross County the other week being a glaring example) merely reinforce the view that he has been a bad signing and we need to address the position. Yet again – and despite wanting to – we have failed to do so.
Three first team starters left in the summer – Mooy, Jota and Starfelt. None were replaced by somebody who could just slot into their position. Bernardo has show some pretty decent form in December and might fill the void left by the Australian – although I would still argue that he has to maintain his form for the rest of the season before we decide to shell out.
With regards to Jota, we have signed a very different type of player in Palma. Palma has had some good games and some bad ones. He clearly isn’t the quickest winger and would benefit from a marauding left back on his outside that helped create space. So therefore his contribution when compared to Jota is likely to be much smaller. It also doesn’t add up that we signed him after targeting fast attackers such as Podence. That is a serious question for those identifying the players we sign – just what attributes are you being asked to look for.
But its replacing Starfelt where the evidence of failure by those tasked with bringing footballers into Celtic is most damning. After two seasons, the Swede had proved himself a pretty decent centre half. He wasn’t Virgil Van Dijk but he had pace, he was strong and could defend. I get why we sold Jota – a £25M bid was always and should always have been accepted. But a £5M bid for a defender with two years on his current deal when CCV was out injured ? We knew he wasn’t going to sign another contract but we didn’t have to sell at that moment. Instead, we did and bought three defenders, one of whom is not ready and two others who are either not good enough or didn’t have the skillset required. The result is that the centre of our defence has been makeshift since CCV went for his operation in April of last year.
I still have hopes for Maik Nawrocki. I watch Polish football and know people involved in the game over there. They believe he can make it. But the game in Poland has very little physicality which means that when Polish players go abroad they have to get used to a game which is not what they experience. And they need time to adjust – especially in central positions – be it defence, midfield or attack. Bottom line is however is that Nawrocki was not ready to immediately step into Starfelt’s shoes.
Which bring us Nat Phillips and Gustaf Lagerbielke. Now with regards to the former you can argue that it was a loan and it didn’t work out, he left Celtic and no harm done. However given the injury concerns over CCV, it is stating the obvious that he had he shown anything to merit being in the team, then his loan would have been extended. Instead it was probably a relief for all concerned that he returned to Anfield.
As for the Swede – his story clearly tells you everything you need to know about how desperate our recruitment has been. He clearly he has some ability otherwise he wouldn’t be in his national squad. But Brendan Rodgers team’s need to be quick at the back so when Lagerbielke was out ran by Stevie May on his debut, the warning signs were there. And so its proved. His lack of pace means that after just 4 months it was clear he was he surplus to requirements. We wanted to transfer him to Lecce and he had his ticket booked for Italy when it suddenly came to everybody’s attention at Celtic that Cameron Carter Vickers is quite injury prone this season. The guy’s head is understandably scrambled as a move he wanted is blocked and he has to stay with a club where he clearly has no long term future. I wish him well and he can always look back at his winner against Feyenoord as something positive from his time at Celtic. But this saga can only be described as amateurish. This isn’t a case of signing somebody who you then find out has bad habits off the park, has a poor attitude or just can’t settle. This is purely down to folk working at Celtic not doing their basics of their job properly. If those involved in this transfer cannot identify that a player isn’t quick they shouldn’t be there – end of story. And to then tell him to move and then cancel it at the last minute reeks of cluelessness.
Despite not needing a project winger and having just confirmed the signing of Iwata (a defensive midfielder) we bought Yang and Kwon from South Korea. I have no beef with projects – Red Bull Salzburg sign plenty of them to be ready when they do sell a star player. And as I mentioned earlier, coming from South Korea to a totally different environment will require them to acclimatise. Yang is currently in the South Korean national team and I would argue that indicates he has something about him. He has had the odd good game but quite a few disappointing ones. Like his countryman Ki Sung Yeung, who arrived in Dec 2009 but didn’t show anything like real form until September of the following year, I suspect we will not see the best of him until next season.
Those at Celtic clearly have seen enough of Kwon to decide he is worth persevering with. The loan move to St Mirren should benefit him and we will hopefully see a first team ready player next year. However it is doubtful that we can say the same about Marco Tillio. To be loaned back to his old club after less than 6 months indicates that all is not well and the suggestions are that he is not going to make it.
If that is the case (and I believe it is) then its been decided that 37% of the new players brought to Celtic in the summer aren’t up to the task after just 5 months. 25% are ones where we knew that it would take at least a year to settle and the remainder have shown flashes but are simply not – currently – at the standard of those they were brought to replace. Add on the fact that none of the problem areas were addressed last summer and you have a window that can only be described as disastrous.
Which brings us to January. Now January is a far more difficult month to bring players in because teams can be fighting for titles, Europe or to avoid relegation – so yes, it isn’t the easiest window. And by god so it has proved. Kühn has obviously being brought to address the pace issue with wingers. With Tillio not making it, MJ loaned out again and James Forrest, seemingly on the way out there was a vacancy and we have decide to spend £3M on dealing with it. I hope of course that he comes good BUT yet again when it comes to spending money we seem to want to limit our spend on one player to £4M or under. As was raised at the AGM, evidence from other European clubs (Outwith the top 5 leagues) points to this NOT being enough.
Elsewhere a back up striker who was NOT first choice at Norwich City has arrived without any glowing recommendations. And of course the other areas were not addressed. £50M plus in the bank and we can’t find a left back out there that is an upgrade on what we have after two successive windows. What a farce.
Clearly Rodgers and the recruitment team are not on the same page. As I understand a deal was lined up by the recruitment team for a left back before January but the managers took a look at the player and decided no. That is an extremely worrying situation. Now Rodgers can rightly point to the likes of Lagerbielke and say “too right I want to have a look at who they are recommending”. However in addition to scouts and recruitment not doing the bare minimum, Rodgers’ desire to buy from England is a real handicap. It is an expensive market and far too often we chase after players from there and end up with nothing. If Rodgers and the recruitment team can’t sit round a table and thrash out realistic candidates to improve the first XI, then we are in serious trouble.
Looking back at the past, it shows us that when we sit there and stay still whilst there’s a title race, then we end up gifting the championship. Back in 86/87 we were ahead of Rangers for the early part of the season but we were no longer up against the likes of Craig Patterson, Cammy Fraser and Jim Stewart. They had bought the likes of Butcher, Woods and Roberts and as they gelled, they overtook us. Davie Hay asked to buy Steve Clarke from St Mirren only to get told he need to find the money himself. Hay would pay for losing the title that season with his job whilst the smug self-satisfied directors would continue in place for the best part of another decade.
In 2008/9, Peter Lawwell gave us the master class of how to not handle a window by failing to get deals over the line in the summer and ending up with Crossas and Loovens neither of whom were even on the fabled lists of targets in June 2008. The party piece would however come in January the following year, when he provided us with Dundee Utd midfielder Willo Flood when the team was crying out for a striker to score goals. Steven Fletcher has been much discussed. Bottom line is that we went with what we had and blew a very winnable league due to an inability to convert chances. The failure that season would have ramifications for future years as it gave Rangers a temporary lifeline. Again, nobody from outside the dugout took responsibility for those events.
So to suggest that we might end up 2nd this year is not hyperbole. Indeed the previous examples say that by doing what we have done last month that is the likely result. There has to be a question of whether Rodgers will be manager next season even if we win the league. We cannot continue with a dysfunctional recruitment system and I suspect he won’t hang around. If we lose the title, then he’s off – no question but the likes of Mark Lawwell should follow him out the door (Lagerbielke and Tillio are on him) and there would have to be serious questions over Michael Nicholson. But we all know that scenario won’t happen and that is Celtic’s biggest weakness – the complacency, nepotism and cronyism at the heart of the club.
We all like to laugh at Rangers and how they are run. And no, not for one minute am I suggesting that we spend what we don’t have and rely on director’s loans. But I’ll give them this. Look at how they’ve dealt with GvB and Michael Beale. Compare that to how we kept Neil Lennon in post in 2020/21. If they had the bank balance that we currently have, do you think the cash would be lying there gathering dust if it was needed to sign players ?
Irrespective of how we finish, this summer’s close season will require a lot of work. A new goalkeeper will certainly have to arrive due to Hart’s contract being up. The left back issue will remain. Matt O’Reilly will be sold and I expect Abada to be off too. Hands up anybody who seriously expects the club to address half of those issues ? Anyone ? Thought not.
Our fiscal conservatism and self imposed ceilings as to what we spend and the type of player we sign is almost as bad and feckless as those clubs who spend money like it was going out of fashion without thinking of the pitfalls As I write this, the consequences of this seasons dreadful recruitment could see us lose a 2nd title in 4 years. And if that event comes to pass, its all down to our own profligacy. That would see us miss out on huge CL income. Yet in that event, you can be sure that those running the Celtic won’t take the slightest bit of responsibility. And unfortunately, there appears no end in sight to that mediocrity at the top of the club. We are a family run business posing as a big football PLC.