Years ago I worked with a guy called Frank. Frank was a Celtic fan of sorts, he had followed them when he was younger and now he was older he was more of a golfer than a football fan.
He knew I was a Celtic fanatic and expressed his surprise and delight at the crowds Celtic were getting at that time. Martin O’Neill was in his pomp and Celtic home games attracted no less than 57000-60000 every time we played which put us the 5th best supported side in Europe at that time. From memory only, Barca, Real, Bayern and Dortmund were above us and we were tops in the UK with Manchester United and Arsenal’s stadiums at that time being in a state of upheaval.
Frank told me that Celtic would not be able to sustain such high crowds over a long period. My argument to him was that we could as the club had currently invested in a series of class players such as Larsson, Sutton, Petrov, Moravcik, Mjallby and Lambert. In order to keep the interest high Celtic would have to continue to invest in good players in order to keep the fans coming.
In 2004 Henrik Larsson left Parkhead after giving Celtic three years notice of his departure, Forward planning obviously wasn’t a thing the Celtic directors were good at and when the great man left we looked forward in anticipation to his replacement. We got Henri Camara from Wolves. On loan.
That’s when alarm bells rang amongst many Celtic supporters. Pushing the boat out would have got Robbie Keane at that time or someone of a similar calibre. There’s an old saying – buy cheap, buy twice – and within a few months Craig Bellamy arrived (again on loan) although he was a class act and it was a privilege to see him in the hoops. Not having the TV riches of the English teams was obviously a problem but the directors then forgot that Celtic’s main source of income is their season ticket holders’ payments.
‘Downsizing’ became a buzz word with the fans with the most noticeable example coming in 2007 when, within a few months, we went from having the likes of Bobo Balde and Stilian Petrov in major roles to Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley. Then the crowds began to fall. Signings were ordinary with a few notable exceptions and interest dwindled, culminating in a time last season when home gates were reckoned to be 30,000 and the stadium half empty.
It’s no surprise that the ticket office can’t keep up with new applications now that Brendan Rodgers has take over. It’s the first real ambition the board have shown since Martin O’Neill was appointed and it’s heartening to know that there is still a high level of support out there to follow the team, even in a league like the SPL which lacks the glamour and sophistication of the major European leagues.
A few good signings could well see us back to enjoying home gates of a level we enjoyed under O’Neill. Exciting times hopefully lie ahead and I do hope the board have, at last, learned a lesson in how to attract and retain the custom of their supporters.