IN these trying times, spare a thought for poor Celtic. Here’s a club that had it all – the best players, coaches and every financial advantage going – only for the coronavirus pandemic to strike and snatch it all away.
When one looks at the plight engulfing the Parkhead club over the last few months, only the most stone-hearted of people could look on and not shed a tear. How could you not? The scale of the decline has been monumental as neutrals and rivals alike have watched on in horror and uttered, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
The campaign has been an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Neil Lennon’s side have plummeted in the league, tumbling down the standings all the way from first into second. They didn’t even qualify for the Champions League this year, instead having to make to with its less fashionable younger brother, the Europa League, where they got to compete against also-rans like Italian minnows AC Milan. And as if things weren’t bad enough already, it’s almost been a whole month since they last won a trophy.
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Yep, there really isn’t a fan of any club in Scotland that would happily trade places with Celtic at the moment. How difficult it must be, possessing the best squad in the country and with enough money in the bank – not to mention the valuable assets that can be sold in the playing squad – to completely overhaul the squad on a whim, should things stop going entirely their own way for the first time in a decade.
It’s for this reason that Peter Lawwell, the club’s chief executive, won widespread admiration and universal acclaim for his brave message to supporters on Tuesday afternoon. As Rome burned all around him, this brave man stuck his head above the parapet to say what we’d all been thinking: poor Celtic. There probably isn’t another club around to have suffered through so much over the last year or so.
He’s got a point. Watching the Premiership champions elegantly negotiate the various hurdles of adversity placed in front of them this campaign has been truly inspiring. The way they skilfully side-stepped common sense to fly out to Dubai during a pandemic was like watching Odsonne Edouard in full flow with the ball at his feet, and the club’s bullish refusal to accept responsibility or issue an apology until days after the fact is the sort of combative display that Scott Brown would be proud of.
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I jest, of course. To be fair to Lawwell, he deserves credit for finally admitting that the club got it wrong. And in the five-minute video message to supporters on the club site, he made some valid points. The problem, though, is that those points have been lost, buried under the controversy of a throwaway line.
“This horrific pandemic has affected the whole of society,” the chief executive told fans. “It’s affected people here in Scotland, it’s affected our supporters, it’s affected our football, it’s affected our club – probably our club more than any.”
For a club that have been accused of arrogance in recent weeks, is there any other argument that could have been made that underlined the assertion quite so heavily? If Lawwell truly thinks finishing second in the league and not winning a trophy for the first time in ten years is an unprecedented catastrophe, evidence of some grave divine injustice that makes Celtic deserving of the public’s sympathy, then he is sorely mistaken.
When Celtic eventually released their apology, another club in Glasgow made a similar proclamation to their fans. Rather than saying sorry for a self-inflicted PR s***-show, though, Partick Thistle were informing their supporters that due to the decision to postpone all football below the Championship until February, they would start placing their playing staff on furlough so they could ride out the impending financial crisis. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d argue that one scenario is a little more serious than the other.
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In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I’m a Thistle fan, so the following should be accompanied with a healthy dose of salt. But if we’re searching for a club that have had a difficult time over the past year or so, there are few with a claim as strong as the Maryhill club.
When the Championship was curtailed last season and football brought to a shuddering halt, the Jags were two points behind Queen of the South with a game in hand – a game in hand, I might add, against an Inverness team they had beaten on both occasions they had met that season. The league fixture was postponed to accommodate a Scottish Cup tie for the Caley Jags but it mattered little in the end as Thistle were relegated on a points-per-game basis. Or to be specific, by 0.04 points. And that’s without even getting into the whole Dundee vote controversy.
Not to worry, though. The Jags were given assertions that other SPFL sides would enter into reconstruction talks in good faith. Naturally, the discussions broke down quickly and nothing changed.
When the government unveiled a support package totalling upwards of £50milllion to be shared around Scottish sport, it looked as though the Jags might receive some sort of financial compensation for their enforced relegation. After all, as one of two full-time teams in League One alongside Falkirk, their outgoings are far greater than their contemporaries. Surely the distribution of the relief package would be means-tested?
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Another swing and a miss. Rather than dividing the cash based on the financial commitments of each club, how much money a particular club received was based on the league they found themselves in. The result? Thistle and Falkirk each got £150,000 to mitigate the losses of playing behind closed doors, while the likes of Alloa and Arbroath – part-time clubs in the second tier, with substantially lower operating costs – were granted a cool £500,000.
I’d suggest to Mr Lawwell that straight off the bat, my beloved Thistle have been affected more than Celtic by the pandemic. As have plenty of other teams lower down the SPFL pyramid too numerous to mention. What about Brora Rangers and Kelty Hearts, respective winners of the Highland and Lowland leagues last year, two ambitious and upwardly-mobile clubs that were denied their chance to compete for a place in the professional set-up when the League Two play-off was scrapped? What about the level below that, the West of Scotland Football League, where all football has been postponed for the second time in less than a year and clubs are forbidden from even training?
If I’m being charitable, there’s an argument to be made that Celtic’s finances have been affected more than any other side in Scotland over the last year or so but that’s about as far as my sympathy stretches. Given the scale of the club’s business operations, I imagine the loss of earnings since the pandemic began will be truly eye-watering. That’s a fair complaint.
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Lawwell can also rightly feel aggrieved by Boli Bolingoli’s inexplicable Spanish sojourn and the host of international players that have had to self-isolate upon their return to Glasgow, limiting the options Neil Lennon has available to him and in turn damaging the club’s title bid. These are just criticisms but ultimately leave me thinking of that line about how cynics know the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Yes, Celtic’s bank account will have suffered heavily over the last year or so. But when other clubs harbour genuine fears that they could go to the wall before supporters are allowed back to stadia in their droves, is that really our biggest concern right now? A financial behemoth – one that will undoubtedly remain so after the pandemic – losing a few quid while others fear for their very existence?
The arrogance is staggering. At the absolute worst, Celtic are comfortably the second-best side in the country. The financial reality of Scottish football makes it virtually impossible to imagine the drop-off ever getting any starker. This nightmare campaign that has seen the Premiership champions slip to the lowest ebb imaginable still has them in second, with an excellent chance of lifting the Scottish Cup in May and a place in the qualifying rounds of next season’s Champions League is all but certain.
As a supporter of a club that has suffered permanent, irrevocable damage over the last year, I’d like to think I’ve got a decent idea about how the pandemic has affected sides towards the lower end of the pyramid. And let me tell you: Celtic are the last team in Scotland that we should be concerned about. They will be fine, and they will get through the other side of this crisis relatively unscathed and in one piece.
That’s a helluva lot more than just about any other team in Scotland can say, and Lawwell would do well to remember that fact before pleading with the public as we get our microscopic violins out.