Life in the Slow Lane

Ajax DeilaSo Deila is out. Hopefully he’ll be leaving the club next month after our final league game of the season and a league championship presentation for us all to celebrate. Eight points – either us winning them or Aberdeen dropping them or a combination thereof – will be enough to clinch that. The speculation as to who replaces him has been underway since even before Sunday’s Scottish Cup defeat.

But is that really enough?

Let me take you back to September 2003. Four months on from 80,000 Celtic fans descending on Seville for the UEFA Cup final, Celtic had started the season well by qualifying for the Champions League group stages and only dropping two points in the league. But it was off the park that something significant was happening.

Celtic named their new “Executive Director, Head of Operations” – Peter Lawwell.

Although he wouldn’t start officially until November 1st, it would seem he had set out his stall as soon as he walked in the door. Brian Quinn, then Celtic chairman, had stated that they were bringing in someone that would work with then manager Martin O’Neill, but at the same time as the appointment was announced, O’Neill made this statement.

“I accept that money is tight, but I don’t think we’re in any unmanageable debt. You’re always thinking that if results materialise, and Europe has put funds into the football club that hasn’t been budgeted for, then there could be money to do things and that’s what I’m hoping for. If not, we’ll have to try and get used to life in the slow lane.”

“We’d all like the wage bill to come down, but I don’t think our wage bill is that high. The percentage compared to turnover is phenomenally good. We’ve got rid of a couple of high earners signed before I got here in Eyal Berkovic and the 20,000-a-week Rafael, as he’s been termed.”

“Of the remaining high earners, they will leave either when their contracts come up or, presumably, an offer acceptable to all parties comes in. Then you start trying to replace these players for much less money, but I know what the club will be demanding: that those players be every bit as good, if not better, than the players you’re replacing.”

“That’s where the problem lies. If you don’t replace the really fine players that we have at the football club with another set of fine players, you’ll have to accept the consequences.”

The prophetic Martin O’Neill.

Now, at the time, O’Neill was being linked with a the manager’s job at Tottenham Hotspur. So, when O’Neill mentioned “life in the slow lane” many suspected that either O’Neill was negotiating his position and not showing his hand about Spurs, or we were trying to avoid becoming another Leeds United.

Brian Quinn loved to name drop them any time someone mentioned spending money. Leeds had gone from being Champions League semi-finalists in 2001, to selling all their best players to service their massive debt. They’d narrowly escaped relegation from the English Premier League in 2002/03, but would go on to be relegated in 2003/04 and relegated again to the third tier in 2006/07. One newco later and the minor punishment of just 15 points – mainly because they had got the CVA they wanted but HMRC were challenging it and risking Leeds not being able to start the 2007/08 season – and Leeds have still never reached the top flight again.

But maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe O’Neill really did know what was coming.

I’ve heard from several people that O’Neill wanted to leave at the end of the 2003/04 season but was persuaded to stay one more year as losing Henrik Larsson that summer was bad enough. He stayed, but did eventually decide to leave the next year to take care of his ill wife. Performances dipped at the end of that season to the point that we got Black Sunday.

Gordon Strachan came in and carried out exactly what O’Neill had said – replaced the outgoing players with new players on less money and had to demand that they be as good. Now, full credit to Strachan, we reached the Champions League last sixteen twice under him so clearly he worked wonders with a team that didn’t have a Paul Lambert or a Johan Mjallby never mind a Henrik Larsson.

But then Strachan eventually got to the point where he felt like his time was up. I couldn’t tell you when he came to that conclusion. I’ve heard one story that he wanted to leave at the end of 2007/08, but changed his mind when we lost Tommy Burns as he felt like he owed it to Tommy. Again, like O’Neill’s final season, 2008/09 is a season that faded away to nothing by the end. We all know Strachan had decided to leave long before that had finished.

Tony Mowbray came in but couldn’t come close to doing what Strachan did by getting the best out of the players he had available. Strachan’s team had looked stale in those last few months, and so Mowbray stumbled to a January transfer window with them where he was handed Robbie Keane for six months – I doubt he had any say in that signing. Not that the other signings he did have had a say in were any good of course, and he was thankfully gone long before the end of that season.

Then Neil Lennon stepped up. In what was probably the one time that we’ve properly refreshed the squad since O’Neill’s first season in charge, Lennon almost managed to mould a title winning team immediately. Indeed, if not for two poor matches in the League Cup final and in Inverness in the league, he would have emulated O’Neill and won a treble.

Lennon did eventually win the title the following season. He then took us to our best ever points total in the Champions League the season after that – including a win at home to Barcelona – and saw us set a phenomenal defensive record in his fourth and final season in charge.

But Lennon also had to watch the team he’d built up from the beginning get sold off year after year, all the while being expected to replace them using nothing like the funds for which those players had been sold. Victor Wanyama went for £12.5m, yet his replacement of Nir Bitton was brought in for just £700k.

Of course, it’s all part of the strategy. But how long can you do that for? And how much does it rely on your scouting system getting things spot on every time?

Lennon was a player under O’Neill, and must have saw his mentor get fed up with restrictions from above. He left for a while under Strachan as his playing career ended, but he was soon back as a coach and you know Lennon learned a lot from Strachan – including the concept of a manager having a shelf life.

When you don’t have the support you want from those with the purse strings there’s only so much you can do. Throw in the constant goldfish bowl of football in Glasgow and the hugely unacceptable addition of death threats and even a technical area attack that Lennon suffered during his four seasons in charge, you can easily understand why he more than any of the others would have had enough in the end.

Mind you, since heading to Bolton, Lennon has found that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. That may suggest why, within minutes of Celtic confirming the news of Deila’s departure, Lennon was reported as being willing to return as Celtic manager. Well at least he’s keen, although didn’t he reportedly leave because the Celtic board didn’t match his ambition? I doubt that’s changed, but clearly Lennon’s stature isn’t what it once was.

Which brings us to Ronny Deila. He came with a plan of how Celtic should play, but in his two seasons we’ve barely seen it. Ronny, bizarrely, was given his backroom staff – something I’ve never seen any other Celtic manager have thrust on them. On top of that, Deila has undoubtedly had only a “pick from this list” say in transfers as Celtic have thrown favours the way of Lawwell Jnr and Dudu Dahan far too many times for that to be coincidence. Throw in disruptive and undermining players like Anthony Stokes, Kris Commons and even the kebab munching club captain Scott Brown, and it’s perhaps a wonder Deila has lasted this long.

Of course, he’s far from blameless. His undying commitment to playing Stefan Johansen despite being a shadow of the player we saw last season has been far too predictable, but it’s not just him. There’s questions all over that squad, and Deila must have had an influence somewhere in it. Certainly teams like Aberdeen and Rangers this season have looked significantly fitter than us, and that must be down to the manager. It can’t all be disruptive dressing room influences.

The other aspects he should be able to influence are non-existent too. The high pressing game Deila wanted has barely been seen, and that’s what disappoints me most. What we were promised when Deila arrived has sadly never come to fruition. Another promise was the development of youth. Yes, Kieran Tierney has been a wonderful addition, and I hope he’s the first of many to come from the Kirkintilloch school set up we’ve had in place for several years now. But where are the others? On loan. And then there’s our young acquisitions like Scott Allan and Ryan Christie, who were playing first team football at top Scottish teams, before being brought to Celtic and thrown into the development squad. Why? Christie was even recalled from loan early to do that!

With Deila now confirmed as leaving at the end of this season, who next? Well… does it matter? Yes we could find ourselves another manager like Strachan or Lennon, but for how long? When will they get fed up with the restrictions and move on? How much say will they actually have in aspects like transfers?

As I said in my last blog, Desmond, Lawwell and the rest of the Celtic board have little interest in the here and now. They are looking to where they can take Celtic, and have been since Lawwell walked in the door. But that’s 12 and a half years ago. At some point you have to stop dreaming.

In terms of footballing structure, nothing has significantly changed in that time. There’s more money in England than ever before. The Champions League is becoming stale with the same teams reaching the latter stages most seasons, but rather than try to fix that the suggestions are that’s exactly what they want! The European Super League may well materialise eventually, but from what I can see it doesn’t involve us. Makes you wonder what influence Lawwell being on the ECA board really has.

It’s long past time that those in charge at Celtic stopped dreaming and focused on today. We’ve been going nowhere now for far too long. Either they change direction, or new people with new ideas are needed.

By all means, maintain the overall strategy. Living within our means and bringing in younger players – ideally from our own development squad – is exactly what all clubs should be trying to achieve. In the currently climate, we’ll even have to accept that to do that we’ll develop some of those players and sell them on.

But let’s do that with a proper scouting network and not just Lawwell’s BT Friends and Family deal.

More than that though, whoever the next manager is, they need to be allowed to manage all football aspects of the club. Lawwell should set the budget, but that’s it. He needs to let go. Everyone relating to the football operations of the club should report to the manager, not the CEO. And that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s actually the Director of Football as this isn’t even a new concept at Celtic.

Probably the best decision Celtic ever made wasn’t so much bringing in Jock Stein – it was Bob Kelly giving him full control and stepping back. Like Ronny Deila, Jimmy McGrory was a nice guy. But that counted against him as “manager” and he had little say in anything. More than 50 years on, we need something broadly similar now.

It seems to me there are massive problems at Celtic, but while the outgoing manager is undoubtedly part of them he is still not the root cause. Celtic are in that slow lane that O’Neill warned us of 12 and a half years ago. We’re on cruise control in that lane and quite frankly if we want to get out of it, changing the manager won’t be enough.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Brilliant piece mate. Well done.

  2. thedoc says:

    Lawwell Bankier Livingston Wilson et all OUT. You sold the jersey’s. Literally.

    Desmond either invest & change strategy or sell up.
    You know it makes sense.

    Ronny & the two Johnnies bugger off now please & take John Park with you.

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