Paradise Lost as Celtic dumped out of Champions League
Paradise - a place where dreams are supposed to be realised, but last night Celtic’s dream of reaching the group stages of the Champions League turned into a nightmare as Romanian champions Cluj dumped them out of Europe’s elite club competition in spectacular fashion for the second successive season.
Not so much Paradise as it is Paradise Lost now.
I purposely left writing this critical piece of Tuesday night’s debacle until today so that I could take a step back and review the wreckage that was Celtic’s second successive failure in the Champions League qualifiers.
But the emotions are just as strong now as they were last night after leaving Celtic Park. i don’t normally do it, but I walked out minutes before the final whistle and missed the final goal of the game - for Cluj.
So where do Celtic go from here? Who is to blame for that debacle? Is Celtic’s domestic dominance at risk now? Are we really a Champions League-level side? Are Cluj really better than us?
There are plenty of questions to be asked, but will we get an answer from the Celtic hierarchy? Or will we be fed the same hogwash as we always do after such failed campaigns?
The Selection Fallacy
When Celtic’s starting eleven was announced ahead of the game, it looked as though Celtic were going with a 3-5-2 formation to take the game to Cluj - but within minutes Celtic’s game plan went out of the window as the Romanians used the extra space down the flanks to stretch the Celtic defence and open up gaps for their strikers and midfielders to flood through on the counter.
This led to Lennon taking our best midfielder out of his natural position and playing him at left back to help plug the gaps down the flanks. His accommodation of Olivier Ntcham at the expense of Boli Bolingoli [despite his faults] upset the whole team dynamic and caused confusion in a formation that Celtic’s players were far from comfortable with against a side that had clearly done their homework and knew how to press Celtic, to exploit our weaknesses and above all played to their own strengths.
We had £10 million worth of defenders sitting on our bench, two players that would have not upset the dynamic of the team but strengthened it both defensively and in the attacking sense also. I understand the hesitation around using Boli Bolingoli as his defensive game is weak compared to his attacking play, but Lennon’s blatant refusal to bring the former Rapid Vienna player on shows that Lennon does not have any faith in the player and this proved crucial in upsetting the team dynamic. This isn’t Bolingoli’s fault though, this is squarely down to Lennon and those who scouted him as a replacement for Kieran Tierney.
You also have to question why our most expensive signing - £7 million Christopher Jullien - was sitting on the bench, despite playing a full 90 minutes at the weekend in our win over Motherwell. If he was fit enough to play against the Fir Park side then he was more than fit enough to face Cluj on Tuesday night. He would have added some steel in the heart of our defence and a presence at set pieces as we attacked - but again the decision to leave him out of another Champions League game finally came back to bite Lennon on the arse.
And then we have the refusal of Neil Lennon to utilise Scott Sinclair and instead promoting Lewis Morgan and Mikey Johnston ahead of the former Man City and Chelsea forward. Are Celtic trying to force him out of the club to get rid of his wage bill? Does Lennon not fancy Sinclair in his set up? Whatever the real reason, to promote Morgan ahead of Sinclair is criminal - given the fact that Sinclair has shown over the past three seasons that he is a match winner, even when he’s not on top of his game.
While Morgan has proven nothing other than he struggled in League One with Sunderland. And for Lennon to bring Morgan on to help change the game in Celtic’s favour - that decision must go down as one of the most laughable, especially when he gives Leigh Griffiths less than ten minutes to make an impact - even though he had a number of good chances to score.
Has Lennon been told not to play Sinclair? Is someone at board room level interfering with the management of the Celtic team? It wouldn’t be the first chief executive nor the last time this happened. But Celtic and Neil Lennon must come out and answer why Morgan is preferred to Sinclair - a man who has scored 61 goals in 164 appearances since joining the club in August 2016.
On paper, the team that was put out by Lennon was capable enough to beat Cluj, but individual mistakes along with the wrong set up, a clear failure to change the set up cost Celtic.
Celtic’s failure on Tuesday night wasn’t just about one player out of position, one formation or several players being snubbed. It was a collective problem that encompasses the whole club from board room down to the academy.
Lennon at the tip of the problem
After the match, Lennon quite clearly stated that the defeat was a collective responsibility and he is right in that. But it also looked as if he was trying to point the finger or deflect the blame away from him and solely onto the players.
Lennon’s game plan was ripped up within minutes despite having the knowledge of the first leg and previous scouting missions on how Cluj would set up in the first game and expecting the same level of intensity and counter attacking at Celtic Park. But rather than looking to play to Celtic’s strengths with the best people in their respective roles and playing our own game - Lennon changed the whole dynamic of the team to accommodate Olivier Ntcham - because he wanted more technicians in the side. How about having more match winners in the team instead Neil?
Even with the evidence of Celtic’s defeat to Rangers in December, when Brendan Rodgers played McGregor out of position weakening Celtic significantly, Lennon still went ahead and did likewise with the knowledge that he actually had a left back available.
Was the defensive frailties of Bolingoli’s game worthy of pulling McGregor out of midfield to fill that void while playing Ntcham where McGregor usually sets up?
It was a tactically naive approach from Lennon and one that helped cause Celtic’s Champions League downfall, despite his protestations.
A Small Fish in a Big Pond
Celtic have dominated Scottish Football for eight years in a row. We have swept title after title - whether Rangers were in the league or not. We are a big fish in the small pond that is Scottish Football and while we have outgrown our wee pond, we are insignificant when we go swimming with the big fish of the Champions League.
Celtic are NOT a Champions League club. our stadium might be on par with some of the biggest Champions League clubs and our fan base is lauded by the majority of Europe’s elite, but as a club we are not Champions League-level.
Like every other club in Europe, we sell players to make a profit, but unlike clubs like Porto [who were knocked out on Tuesday night also], Benfica and Ajax - we fail to bring through the next generation of player to fill that void left behind or bring in the replacement from another club to mould, to improve and to sell on.
Our strict business plan is clearly at odds with our recruitment of players. I get that we can’t go out and attract the type of players that go to the English Premier League or who demand £50,000-plus a week in wages, but surely Celtic can make sure when they sell their best players that they have players waiting in the wings to take over the mantle hitting the ground running.
Boyata was always destined to leave this summer as was Lustig and Benkovic - yet we wasted weeks in looking for new defensive options before signing Christopher Jullien - who missed a massive chunk of our pre-season preparations.
I get that Brendan Rodgers’ departure along with Lee Congerton’s at the end of last season upset Celtic’s plans for this season - but there is no excuse with the amount of time it took Celtic to replace key players in our squad.
Forget the likes of Timo Weah, Oli Burke and even Benkovic to an extent. It was the departures of Boyata, Lustig and the injury [and then departure] of Tierney that should really have been dealt with better.
Despite calls for Lustig to have been given what he wanted, and with all respect to the Big Swede, his time was up. Last season showed that he was the weak link within Celtic’s back line with Lennon even admitting during his Hibernian days that he put out a side to target Lustig as he knew that was where Celtic were weakest.
Yet, there was no replacement signed up immediately. It took Dudu Dahan to jet into Scotland bringing Hatem El Hamed to the club to finally give Celtic fans some hope that they would not be looking at Anthony Ralston as their first choice right back. And El Hamed hit the ground running despite his lack of match fitness after a three month lay off.
But with around two weeks remaining of the transfer window shutting, we are still looking for players to sign. We are still looking to sign a proven left back that can defend, we are still looking for cover at right back, we are still looking for a player that will provide more competition in the heart of the midfield and even another attack-minded player be it on the wings or up front.
And while this carries on, we are still wasting a jersey and a wage on Daniel Arzani - who is on loan from Man City until the end of this season. Another project player for Manchester City and Lawwell’s grubby little mitts are all over this as is his son’s. The duo are in effect using Celtic as a form of feeder club for the English champions and it is insulting.
It is time that Celtic continues to develop their own players, sign their own players and develop them not do the work for the likes of Manchester City. Look at John Guidetti, Patrick Roberts and Jason Denayer. The trio arrived at Celtic on loan and made an impact at the club in their own respective ways - yet after the loan deals ended we were left with the same gaps to fill and with no successors lined up from our academy or head hunted by our scouting network.
That is criminal. It is negligence on the part of Peter Lawwell and the board, on our scouting network and our academy. They take their eye off the ball for a quick fix to tide them over until the end of the season. And we still haven’t replaced Moussa Dembele after his departure last summer.
Yes we signed Edouard for £9 million and he should his worth last season as well as this early in the current season, but Griffith’s off field battles last season along with Bayo - another project player - shows how weak our future development of the squad is. We do not look at the contingencies, we do not look to the future, we do not look at the worst case scenarios.
And you can bet your mortgage on the club not having plans in place if Ajer, Ntcham, Edouard or even Simunovic are signed before the end of this current transfer window - not that many of those are likely to happen. Although the lack of Champions League football could prove pivotal to some players making their minds up about their future at Celtic.
The Ajax model
The club, the fans, the players, management - as well as the media - can talk about Celtic emulating the likes of Ajax - who struggled past PAOK in this round of qualifiers despite reaching the semi finals of the competition last season. But the Ajax model is chalk and cheese compared to what Celtic do.
The comparison and how to improve Celtic’s model is an article or series of articles in itself, but Celtic will not get anywhere near being a Champions League group stage club if our board continue to sell our best players for tens of millions and failing to have someone to step into the breach from our academy or from the transfer market.
That is what Ajax do and have done for decades and what Celtic fail to do. The Germans revamped their whole national set up after failures in the World Cup and European Championships. Celtic need to do likewise and revamp their whole system from Academy to First Team, Player Recruitment to Board Room.
I don’t mean spending tens of millions on players, I mean planning for long-term success along with the short term goals of winning the title and progressing in Europe this season as well as in future seasons.
Celtic’s whole set up is that of a club looking to get back to its European glory days the cheapest way possible, it is disjointed and top heavy with the board room having more of an effect on our matches - thanks to their involvement in player recruitment - than they actually should.
An accountant should not have a say in the club’s recruitment of players other than to give those responsible for such tasks a budget. He shouldn’t be the figurehead that meets the players, who tries to entice the players to the club and he certainly shouldn’t be the main person doing the deals. He should be on the sidelines on his calculator working out the sums to make the transfer happen.
We can’t even get the hiring of a Head of Recruitment correct. We hired Nick Hammond on a temporary basis as some sort of trial period to see if he was up to the job or to get us past this window before making a more long term appointment. Again this was down to the decision of an accountant and a board made up of individuals that have no links to the club or the playing of the game.
Across the city, Rangers have for years had the figure of John Greig in and around the board room - and while the Ibrox side are not the best example to use in this situation at least they kept an element of the club’s footballing heritage close to the powers-that-be. Something that is missing at Celtic.
Celtic have a rich history of producing players from the club’s academy - some have excelled with Celtic others have excelled at other clubs across the UK - but it is far from Ajax-level and given that we seem to be hiring ex-Motherwell youth coaches our academy now seems to of a level that is SPFL rather than a European one.
Better writers than me have looked at how clubs can use the Ajax model to their own benefit and better writers than me will inevitably compare Celtic’s academy to that of Ajax’s but it is clear to me that Celtic’s whole set up needs revamped if we are to make any sort of dent in Europe in future - especially given that we cannot compete with the financial muscle of the big five European leagues thanks to UEFA’s inherent quest to snort as much cash up their snoots forgetting the impact it has on the credibility of their competitions.
Peter Lawwell & Dermot Desmond
Over the years, even since my Scotzine days, I was not only supportive but also critical of the way that Lawwell and Desmond ran the club over a number of issues - but the major topic of conversation was always that of club finances and the signing or selling of players.
I fully understand that in the current climate Celtic are a selling club, but we are a short-term selling club. We sign a player that we develop for maybe two or three seasons and then we sell them on for significantly more than what we signed them for - but we have no successor lined up.
This can be viewed as a club wide problem rather than specific to just one aspect of it. The board fail to provide the necessary funds to do the deals, the management of the club fail to see past the short term vision of winning this season’s title and the scouting department fail to provide the necessary targets to potentially bring to the club. Again look at the Ajax model. They sell a player and they already have a player waiting in the wings to make the step up or bring in a player that they have scouted to hit the ground running.
Money doesn’t buy you success - as Porto found to their cost this season after spending over £50 million on players only to be dumped out of the Champions League at the same time as Celtic. And while Porto’s exit is more of a shock than Celtic’s - it doesn’t lesson the feelings of the Celtic fans in the aftermath of that debacle on Tuesday night.
From a business sense, Celtic are a well run club. They have reached a turnover of over £100 million while playing in the Scottish league, they have commercial deals that are the envy of every Scottish club, they secured the biggest sponsorship deal in the club’s history with New Balance, they built the Lennoxtown training facility, have plans to redevelop Barrowfield and build a Hotel, Museum, Ticket Office and Superstore building beside the Celtic way.
But all of that is for nothing if we do not have a team on the pitch that does the business even if the odds are stacked against us. The tie was firmly in our grasp before the game on Tuesday night. We had the advantage, but we threw it away not one or twice but three times.
Individual mistakes like Scott Brown’s brainfart of a handball shows that despite being an integral part of the team and a man that the players look to for leadership can balls up as well. Yet we sit here knowing that Brown is nearing the end of his time at Celtic - with no successor. John McGinn was pencilled in as his successor and the board penny pinched over the transfer fee allowing Aston Villa to snap him up.
A year on we are still without a player that can succeed Scott Brown and again that is a collective failure across the club as a whole.
Tuesday night’s game showed that we are focusing solely on crossing the finishing line with as little investment as possible. For the second successive season, Lawwell and Desmond gambled on qualifying with the bare minimum of signings. Yet only one of this summer’s signings played any part in Tuesday night’s game - a player that cost around £1 million, while £13 million worth of players sat on the bench with their thumbs up their arse questioning what they had done to warrant exclusion.
Lawwell and Desmond have taken their eyes off the prize and firmly focused on the balance sheets and that’s the problem with an accountant and businessman putting finances ahead of the club’s actual goal of winning silverware. And why that someone within Celtic’s illustrious history MUST be given a seat on the board and have influence in the goings on behind the scenes.
A permanent Head of Recruitment must be appointed, Dermot Desmond needs to stop flirting with the prospect of buying Shamrock Rovers and either buy them and sell his shares in Celtic or focus all his efforts on Celtic and ditch the Irish club. When he was a shareholder at Manchester United, his focus was always on the Old Trafford side and never on Celtic.
His continued presence at Celtic along with that of Lawwell - who continues to pick up bonuses despite Champions League failure - has turned the hierarchy stale and one that is allowing Rangers and their poodles in the media to dream of the Ibrox side usurping us at the top of the table. We had the chance to put them to the sword for good the first season they were in the Scottish Premiership and we let them off the hook and despite finishing nine points behind us last season and with a historic treble treble in the bag - the Ibrox side smell blood and that is thanks to the board’s willingness to do the bare minimum to secure domestic silverware.
There is now a deafening call for Lawwell to leave the club and while I would have defended his record previously, now is the time for him to go. Out of the past six seasons that we aimed to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, we have failed to qualify for four of six. Losing around £120 million in revenue in the bargain. Any other business, any other CEO would have lost his job and his cushy wee wage and bonus. But at Celtic, Lawwell continues to be rewarded for his failure.
Even his comments about not even interviewing prospect new managers to appoint Neil Lennon as the club’s new permanent manager in the showers at Hampden was a major PR disaster. It ruined what was a massive achievement for the club and turned what was a celebratory moment into one of chaos, condemnation and dividing the fan base. It was typified by the failed victory parade through the streets of Glasgow that couldn’t end at Celtic Park - because the Rugby Union European Cup Final was being played there - and was cancelled due to inept policing from Police Scotland and no organisation from Celtic or Glasgow City Council.
Peter Lawwell and Dermot Desmond are dragging the club down into the depths of mediocrity at a European level, while success domestically hides the problems at the club.
Personally speaking, I have taken my eye off the ball when it comes to Celtic as I laugh, as I criticise and as I mock the horde across the city. Many Celtic bloggers and fans alike have done this when Rangers 1872 were liquidated and when Rangers 2012 was created. But going forward, and while there will still be a focus on what the horde are doing, there must be a greater focus and accountability on Celtic, its management team, the players and especially the board.
Nine in a Row
Forget about the Europa League. The icing on Celtic’s cake was the Champions League. The Europa League is the sloppy seconds of European football and a competition that will bring nothing more than an unwelcome distraction to Celtic with a half empty stadium.
Do I want us to qualify for the competition? Of course. But our main priority - as it always was even before Tuesday night’s game - must be to win nine in a row.
Celtic’s efforts must solely be focused on dominating the Scottish Premiership and making sure that we equal Jock Stein’s record of nine titles in a row. But we need to strengthen still - and a left back is a must.
Failure to win Nine in a Row will see the likes of Desmond and Lawwell face the wrath of Celtic fans that even the Kelly’s could never have dreamed of. And they are the biggest threat to Nine and Ten in a row not Rangers.
Over the past few years they have put that at risk with their gambles, with acting like a Man City feeder club and penny pinching when it comes to signing players that would have done a job for us.
It is time that Celtic get a grip of themselves before it is too late. Before Paradise turns into Dante’s Inferno with Lawwell and Desmond dragging the club ever closer to hell - Rangers winning the title.
The work must start now and it must start with strengthening the club further, but with no Champions League revenue again this season - it looks increasingly likely that Tierney’s transfer fee will be swallowed up by the accountant to make the balance sheet look pretty to the shareholders.