How Peter Lawwell averted a financial crisis at Parkhead – and banked Celtic £170 MILLION in the transfer market

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WHEN Peter Lawwell succeeded Celtic chief executive Ian McLeod in the September of 2003, the Parkhead club was, from the outside looking in at least, buoyant.

Martin O’Neill’s men may have finished the previous season trophyless – but reaching the UEFA Cup final had been an exhilarating experience for fans and the feelgood factor the feat generated remained. 

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The Glasgow giants tapped in to that, finished 17 points ahead of their city rivals Rangers in the Premier League and lifted the Scottish Cup for good measure.

However, behind the scenes all was not well. There were grave concerns about their finances in the boardroom. The run to Seville had come at a considerable cost.

The passion, personality and persuasiveness of O’Neill, who had been appointed manager three years earlier, had convinced principal shareholder Dermot Desmond to loosen the purse strings and spend big money on big name players and pay them big wages.

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The likes of John Hartson (£6m), Neil Lennon (£5.75m) Chris Sutton (£6m), Alan Thompson (£2.75m) and Joos Valgaeren (£3.8m) certainly delivered on the park. But Celtic were living outwith their means. They had just made a loss of £11.66m and were £17.78m in debt. The situation was untenable.

The only money spent strengthening the squad in the 2003/04 season was the £350,000 that went on Motherwell midfielder Stephen Pearson – which O’Neill paid out of his own pocket.

Matters came to a head when Celtic suffered a 3-0 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League group stages in Ukraine in October the following year. Dejected and fearful for the future, Desmond, Lawwell and chairman Brian Quinn sat down in the team hotel afterwards to discuss what could be done. 

A share issue in 2001 had raised £25m. But for Quinn, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England and an honorary professor of economics at Glasgow University, going back down that road wasn’t the answer. He believed they needed a completely new strategy.

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“We have to have a radical change, not just tinkering,” he said. “We cannot keep going back to shareholders to cover current expenses. When you raise money from shareholders, it should be for capital expenditure, such as building a training ground and improving the scouting structure. We have to run our affairs so that we break even at least, year by year.”

Quinn later recalled: “We sat down that night and had a look at the team. We had a look at who were the big earners. We told Martin immediately that we couldn’t go on like this. We needed to change things. We told him that we were far from being in trouble, but that we would be if we were to go on like this for a few more years, and that can’t be.”

Lawwell, who had been given the task of cutting non-football expenditure by 20 per cent, devised a masterplan.

“The job was to put in place a sustainable business model while continuing to be successful on the pitch,” he said. “I remember going to Brian a few months into the job. I said: ‘If I can get the club to make a bit of cash, would the board invest it in the team?’ He replied: ‘I love an optimist’.”

Undeterred, Lawwell duly set about the task. He rapidly produced results. During the five years that O’Neill was in situ between 2000 and 2005 Celtic made a loss of £50m. In the last three years that his replacement Gordon Strachan spent in the dugout between 2006 and 2009 they made an operating profit of £36m.

What is more, Strachan got through to the knockout rounds of the Champions League twice in that time. That was an achievement that had, for all his accomplishments, proved beyond his predecessor.

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Bringing in John Park, the highly regarded and widely respected head of youth at Hibernian, as football development manager in the January of 2007 proved to be a watershed moment. Increasingly, Celtic started to target young, gifted but raw foreign footballers with potential who they could develop over time and then sell on for considerably more than they paid.

There were some horrendous failures. The mere mention of the likes of Amido Balde, Mo Bangura, Derk Boerrigter and Stefan Scepovic still send shivers down the spines of supporters. There were, though, many spectacular success stories. Moussa Dembele, Fraser Forster, Ki Sung-Yueng, Victor Wanyama and Virgil van Dijk, to name just a handful, were all superb and made them fortunes.

But Lawwell did more than wheel and deal. The five year £25m deal that he brokered with US-based sportswear firm Nike in 2004 to supply the Celtic kit was the most lucrative in their history.  Many more followed and their bank account swelled.

A £15m share issue, which was underwritten by Desmond, in 2005 raised the cash required to fund a modern training ground. He oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art facility just outside Lennoxtown.

The sale of Kieran Tierney, who came through the youth ranks at the complex, to Arsenal for a Scottish record £25m fee in 2019 more than justified the substantial outlay. James Forrest and Callum McGregor, too, have repaid the investment in trophies.

Lawwell, an accountant by profession, has frequently been accused of being too parsimonious, of being so obsessed with the bottom line it is detrimental to Celtic on the field of play, over the years.

He baulked at the £4m asking price for Hibs striker Steven Fletcher in the January of 2009. The forward ended up moving to Burnley for £3m that summer. However, goals proved hard to come by in the second half of that season and Rangers won the Scottish title on the final day.

The amount the 61-year-old has personally pocketed in recent years – he was paid a £1.2m salary and received a £3.5m bonus in 2019 – has been a bone of contention with many. He is reputed to be the most handsomely remunerated CEO in British football. 

There is little if any love for Lawwell, who it was announced last month is to retire in June after nearly 18 years in the job, among the Celtic support just now.

The 2020/21 season has been nothing short of a car crash at home and abroad. The Parkhead club’s hopes of making Scottish football history by completing 10-In-A-Row ended long ago. They are 21 points off top spot in the Premiership. He can’t leave quickly enough for some.

But the business conducted in the final transfer window of his tenure – which closed last Monday night after Jeremie Frimpong had departed to Bayer Leverkusen for £11.5m, Olivier Ntcham had joined Marseille on loan and Jonjoe Kenny had arrived from Everton until the end of the season – meant that in his major transfer dealings since 2003 he has made £170m and spent £154m on players.

Celtic have won no fewer than 29 trophies, racked up four consecutive trebles and reached the last 16 of the Champions League on three occasions on his watch despite deploying what Desmond once described as “Mr Micawber economics”.

He will receive no thanks from The Green Brigade for his efforts. Hell, he could even require a police escort out of the stadium on his last day. But in time he, like Fergus McCann before him, may be viewed in an altogether different light by his detractors.

The financial implosion suffered by Rangers in 2012 – and Quinn, who ended the use of Employee Benefit Trusts in 2005 and ensured HMRC were paid the tax they were owed for the scheme given to Brazilian playmaker Juninho, deserves credit for Celtic avoiding a similar fate – facilitated their unprecedented spell of domestic dominance. 

But Dominic McKay, the chief operating officer of Scottish Rugby who will replace Peter Lawwell this summer, has a hard act to follow.

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