Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.
I recall working late in 2002. Rangers were playing final in a last 16 game of the UEFA cup. They lost, but they lost narrowly. The next day I came into work and did the unusual thing of telling a colleague that I thought his team were unlucky (it was easier to do that when they lost). I also said to him that the performance had made me realise that our teams were not as far away from being able to achieve something in Europe as the pundits told us. I told him that I believed that, in the near future, Celtic could get to the European final, he laughed. He laughed and carried on with his work. The following season Celtic got to the UEFA Cup final.
I’m not saying this as some great predictor of things to come, I didn’t think we were going to be getting to UEFA Cup final the following season. I just didn’t think we were as far behind as the pundits told us.
This season we’ve seen Ajax, a European peer of ours, reach in the Champions League semi-final, seconds away from reaching the final. The final took place at the weekend, it was a pretty average game but it was won by Liverpool, a team with a European heritage but without the ability to actually win domestic trophies. Perhaps on the back of the podcasts I’ve being doing of late with Mark Cooper about the financial position of our European peers but when watching that final I couldn’t help thinking that, although we’re not a Champions League winning team, we actually have the ability to be a lot closer than perhaps most of our fans, all of the pundits and probably our board think we can.
If you think I’m talking nuts, go back and listen to some of the more recent podcasts that myself and Mark Cooper have had, specifically the one about our position in relation to our European peers.
Celtic last season had the second highest revenue in European football outside the big five leagues. Celtic had the highest wage bill in European football outside the top five leagues. I regularly read online supporters talking about the board not backing the club, and the board needing to do ‘X and Y’ financially to support the manager, however the reality is that in terms of achieving revenue streams, the board are doing a great job because we are up there with the elites across Europe. In terms of funding players on the park, the board are doing a great job because our wage bill is up there with the elites in Europe outside the big five league. Where the board are not doing a great job is in the football structure that has us with a coefficient position around 50, when teams with revenue at or below our level and wage bills below our level such as Porto, Benfica, Anderlecht, Salzburg, Ajax etc are out performing us and getting to latter stages of the Champions League and challenging for the Europa League.
The structure of European football is going to become more challenging for the teams that we should be considering our peers i.e. the elite teams outside the top five leagues, however we still have a window to achieve that, and the levels of success that the likes of Porto, Benfica etc. are achieving are not done by throwing extra money at it. It’s not done by spending a lot of money, it’s done by spending the money we have smarter.
In Scotland there is still a perception that selling players is a sign of weakness. Online and in the media we’ll hear and read people complaining about ‘why couldn’t we hold on to that player for just a bit longer’ or ‘why don’t we ever build from a position of strength’ but the reality is our European peers, who are exceeding us on European stage with a lesser budget, are selling players. The difference is they are recruiting smarter, selling smarter, getting better on the park, are learning to recruit even smarter, are learning to sell at even higher level, are learning to recruit better on the park and so that virtuous cycle continues. That will be the most important thing about how we progress under Neil Lennon.
Peter Lawwell has mentioned that Neil Lennon has “a great eye for a player” but you can only use that great eye if we have boots on the ground. Listeners to the podcast will be sick and fed up of hearing Mark Cooper talking about South America, but it’s not just in South America we should be shopping it is value markets in Holland and Belgium and the Balkans and Scandinavia. My concern about Neil Lennon’s ‘eye for a player’ is that historically that has been in the overpriced English market and the leak last night of potential players illustrates that we are still shopping in Europe’s most expensive market. We need Lennon to get decent players at decent value. The likes of Kelvin Wilson and Gary Hooper are not the level that we should acquire to bridge that gap between cannon fodder (when we do get to the champions league) and a team who competes for finishing second and possibly getting to the last 16. That will only be done by smarter recruitment and better coaches and better coaches of our academy.
I believe Celtic can be the last sixteen/last eight Champions League team. I believe Celtic can be a Europa League last four team if not finalists. If you look across Europe at the teams with our revenue and our wage bill, teams with lower financial levels are out performing us and achieving this. Yes, I am aware of the challenges of bringing people to Scotland, but they do come here and they come because we give them the opportunity to deliver on a world-stage. Look at Virgil van Dijk, he came here, went to Southampton then to Liverpool. He’s just achieved the European Cup when with Liverpool and is regarded by many as the best centre-half in world football. It was not that long ago he was playing under Neil Lennon and Ronnie Deila.
V.V.D is the type of player that we can recruit and if we perform on a higher stage in Europe instead of going from Glasgow to Southampton to Liverpool, he goes straight to Liverpool, and instead of him leaving here for £12m and Southampton selling him for £70m, he goes straight there for £70m. That is still achievable playing in Scotland, but it is only achievable if we are playing at the highest levels of European football.
As I said earlier in the week, I was hoping for a different candidate Neil Lennon but we didn’t get it, so now that he’s there I want him to succeed but the only way he is going to succeed is if we set our expectations higher as a club. We must invest in appropriate recruitment and that investment does not mean just spending on players, that investment means scouts and a commitment to looking in and buying from the best value markets to trade our way up the European football ladder.
Ajax are a real eye-opener for what’s achievable for a “sleeping giant” like ourselves. But they’re also a pretty bad example in terms of transfer activity. I get into right spats on twitter because people will not accept this obvious fact.
Of the 14 players used vs Spurs in the 2nd leg, Ajax played 6 youth products (7 if you include De jong). But these aren’t any old youths – it isn’t by chance. They are standing on the shoulders of decades of development. Legendary coaches, De Toekkmost, millions in infrastructure. And perhaps most of all they sit at the top of the Dutch youth pyramid – a country 3 times the size of Scotland with a higher concentration of quality teams and a wonderful network with nearby countries. The competition for youths is incredible.
We do not have this in Scotland.
So is it fair to put in the same discussion Celtic’s transfer policy and Ajax’s European exploits? I don’t think it is. It’s comparing apples and oranges.
This isn’t a “Lawwellist apoligst” here by the way. He’s a Tory prick that can do one. But I’m trying to speak in hard cold facts. Can our transfer policy improve? Absolutely of course. But Ajax have unique and distinct advantages that on the finance sheet costs millions (and years) to bridge.