Schrodingers Cat examines the power shift at Celtic over the last few decades, and perhaps it explains a lot….
The transfer window has just closed and the overwhelming feeling in the vast majority of the supporter base is somewhat underwhelming.
In recent times the CEO, Peter Lawwell has been criticised for his inaction in defending supporters from press criticism on racism, taking a stance on banning a small section of the support from a European match and failing to stand up for the club on some abominable refereeing decision thereby allowing our players to be brutalised on the park. Whilst some may say silence is golden, many others will hold a polar opposite view that defending the Club and its traditions are a primary function of his role.
As the man responsible for running the plc, he has a wide range of functions to oversee to ensure that the corporation delivers value. However, a football club is not just a revenue stream. For most it’s an emotional investment where a bad day on the park can result in weeks or months of disappointment.
The very fact that supporters are focused on the performance of the CEO at a time when the team has delivered unprecedented success tells its own story.
As CEO he is responsible for ensuring the business strategy is robust and capable of delivering its appropriate goals and objectives.
A look at the chronology of Celtic in the last 25 years will show shifts in strategic direction and some reversals with outstanding results.
Starting with the arrival of Fergus McCann we had a CEO who was now fully focussed on returning Celtic to the very top of Scottish football. He had a clear business strategy with new investment from supporters a key component. However, a bristly individual, he did not always make popular decisions.
The removal of Lou Macari was a positive move as, despite has affiliation with the Celtic support, he failed to commit fully to Celtic and the Club suffered. His subsequent replacement, Tommy Burns, brought back the style of football we had craved for many years.
However, having failed to deliver the title, McCann made the strategic decision to replace Tommy with the support largely sad to see a great Celtic son depart. McCann’s strategy on the business side was clear. Float the Company, raise funds, build a stadium larger than Ibrox and fill it with season ticket holders to assure the revenue stream. On the football side, he appointed the marmite Jock Brown, and subsequently, Wim Jansen.
Those of us of a certain age remembered Jansen as an industrious midfield player in a wonderful Holland team. On the park, Jansen delivered the title preventing a Rangers 10 in a row. It was clear that under his stewardship, Celtic had improved significantly and were back at the top in Scotland. However, tensions with Jock Brown and Wim Jansen resulted in the Dutchman leaving after one season to be replaced, at the 11th hour, by Dr Josef Venglos.
McCann delivered on his 5 year promise and left the Club. Allan McDonald and Frank O’Callaghan now headed the Company. Despite McCann’s commitment to ensure Celtic was never again controlled by a small group of people, he sold his shares to Irish billionaire, Dermot Desmond.
The strategic direction on the park was to bring back Kenny Dalglish as Director of Football with the untested John Barnes as Coach. This was a strategic choice of a Celtic legend and successful manager in England to oversee and guide a rookie coach. Strategically, it was an unmitigated disaster and time for a change in strategic direction.
Desmond, although not owner, wielded his significant influence in ensuring Celtic got he best available manager in place. With Gus Hiddink in the frame, Celtic opted for Martin O’Neill.
A manager of top quality with an excellent pedigree in the top English league. Strategically the power shifted from the Boardroom to the Changing Room. Despite being up against a rigged system in Scotland where Rangers had an illegal advantage over Celtic, O’Neill delivered the first treble since Jock Stein.
The UEFA cup final in Seville, acknowledging some highly talented scalps, was something many of us thought we would never see again. Towards the end of his tenure, the income in Scottish football dropped dramatically and the Club was required to cut costs to assure ongoing viability.
In addition, the health of his wife had become a priority and he left after 5 largely successful years in which supporter confidence had been restored.
Also, during this time, Peter Lawwell became Head of Operations, predominantly in charge of running Celtic. It is unclear if O’Neill would have left Celtic as a result of downsizing but the appointment of Gordon Strachan was seen to be a safe pair of hands who would bring experience and be prepared to downsize the salary bill in line with business requirements.
The appointment of Strachan shifted the power back towards the Boardroom although there was still significant power in the Changing Room as Strachan had a strong pedigree and was known for fighting his corner. Some strategic business decisions were now impacting on the playing field with the signing of Nakamura an opportunity to acquire a highly talented player but also give Celtic exposure to the 100 million population in Japan. It was undoubtedly a success but as big a success as this was, the procurement of Du Wei from the 1.3 billion market in China, was a disaster
Strachan left after 5 years having never won over a significant portion of the Celtic support. His time was largely successful with some great European nights and titles and cups amongst his achievements. It is probably fair to say that the Celtic support did not really know what we had with Strachan as his subsequent support of the Club and the next manager in charge would prove.
Owen Coyle, a man who gained his reputation on a Championship Play Off win, [fortunately] turned Celtic down despite being the CEO’s first choice and the Board then appointed Tony Mowbray. Despite his place in history as the man who started the Huddle, supporters seen this as a significant downgrade in the Manager’s office. The subsequent season proved them right as Mowbray was removed as manager and replaced on an interim basis with Neil Lennon. The power transition, and therefore strategic direction, from Changing Room to Boardroom was now complete.
The strategy of the Club was now to scout lesser known markets and unearth gems that could be developed in Glasgow and sold for a large profit to any of the big 5 European leagues. Some wonderful success stories emanated from this strategy but for every Van Dijk or Wanyama, there was an Amido, Blackman and Rabiu. Projects signed who never yielded any value when moved on. However, on the basis that you must bring in 10 lower quality to find and develop 1 of high value it was accepted at Boardroom level that overall this would create value. There was no doubt that the strategic power lay in the Boardroom.
The implosion and subsequent liquidation of Rangers gave Celtic a “free run” at the Scottish game. Some excellent acquisitions were made at low value- Wanyama, Forster, Van Dijk – all sold for large sums, as well as Ledley, Hooper and Matthews who contributed to title winning teams. However, the power was now firmly back in the Boardroom and with Lennon overvaluing his worth, he departed having failed to convince Lawwell of upgrading the playing squad. With such an overwhelming, financial advantage the risk of appointing Ronnie Delia was low. However, power was now more entrenched in the Boardroom as Lawwell appointed John Collins as his assistant.
2 league titles and robbed of a potential treble by the Scottish refereeing fraternity was a reasonable return for an untested manager. However, it was clear he was struggling in the role and with senior players openly challenging his methods, he began to flounder. The defeat in the Scottish Cup Semi Final to the new Rangers on penalties accompanied by the over-celebrating by the opposition Board members precipitated a change.
Celtic changed strategy and went for the best available manager, akin to what had happened some 15 years earlier. Another Northern Irishman with a strong pedigree from the English Leagues was recruited.
Brendan Rodgers was a hugely popular appointment with 15,000 fans in the stadium to welcome his arrival. There was no doubt that the power was fully back in the Changing Room for the first time since Martin O’Neill. Rodgers would take no interference in football matters and appointed his own backroom team as well as the removal of the Chief Scout, who was crucial to the previous strategy, and replacing him with the, largely useless, Lee Congerton.
Rodgers also forced a £2M investment in the playing surface to install a hybrid pitch to allow for faster play. In Europe. Rodgers was very poor with some hefty home defeats. However, on the domestic front, Celtic were invincible. During Rodgers tenure, all 7 trophies were secured. There was no doubt that Rodgers knew what he was doing and was in charge of all football matters.
The cracks began to show in the 3rd season and whilst the web is full of those in the know, I will not presume to have any inside information. However, whether Lawwell was aware of Rodgers manoeuvres to secure a move back to England it was clear that there was a power grab and Lawwell was now back in full control.
The signing of Shved and Scott Brown dealings with the CEO with the manager out of the loop evidenced this. The manner of Rodgers departure is well documented and whilst he may never be welcomed back by the Celtic fans, his legacy of domestic trophies is outstanding. It is also clear that he was not going to be controlled by a non-football person.
Left with few options, Celtic turned to Neil Lennon. He was a known entity and a “Celtic Man” as well as being instantly available having mutually terminated his contract with Hibernian. He came to Celtic and had his Assistant Manager appointed and his First Team Coach. There was no place for his long term managerial companion Garry Parker. There is no doubt that the power is back in the Boardroom.
The current transfer window shows a CEO in control and unwilling to recruit with a view to delivering on the Park for this season. The first striker target went to Sporting Lisbon and we acquired a project in his place. Soro may be well named if 9 in a Row is not attained.
So, to the title of this piece. We are now in 2020. I would have hoped we would have used the history of where power lies at Celtic (hindsight) to ensure the vision for the upcoming years is one where the best available manager is recruited, and he is supported with adequate resources. The single most important employee at any football club is the first team manager – bar none. We have had our most successful times when the man in charge of football matters is a football man and expectations have been exceeded. When the footballing power lies with Lawwell, we have underperformed in terms of footballing achievements.
We can accept that there is a market value for players to play in Scotland. We cannot pay top dollar for the top players. We have to survive within our means. Few will argue with this. However, there is also a market value for a CEO in Scottish football, and we appear to be asynchronous with Lawwell and his value in this market.
Even if we get to 9 in a Row, it will not be done by the vision of the CEO. Peter Lawwell should have been awarded his loyalty bonus and replaced with a new CEO. Every business needs fresh ideas and we are now going back to a place where we were 8 years ago. However, whether we admit it or not, there is a serious challenge for the title this year and Rangers are going for broke (possibly literally) whilst Celtic hoards tens of millions of cash in the bank account.
If we do use hindsight for 20:20 vision we will realise that we are at our most successful with the best available manager in charge and ably supported by a CEO and Board to deliver excellent results. The supporters will always do their bit.
The CEO needs to ask himself, “have I put aside my personal gains and power status to deliver the best for Celtic Football Club and it’s stakeholders”.
If the January transfer window is anything to go buy, he will answer a resounding “No”.