PETER Lawwell “pulled the strings” of the “puppets” who run Scottish football during his long reign as Celtic chief executive – and his departure from Parkhead will create a huge power vacuum in the game in this country.
That was the claim made by former St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour today as he reacted to the news that Lawwell is set to stand down from his role and retire in the summer.
Gilmour paid tribute to the job the 61-year-old has done during his 18 years at the Glasgow club and predicted his replacement Dominic McKay, who is currently the chief operating officer of Scottish Rugby, has “big boots to fill”.
Celtic have enjoyed unprecedented success during Lawwell’s tenure – they completed their fourth consecutive domestic treble in December – and made regular profits at the same time as a result of their shrewd dealings in the transfer market.
But Gilmour, who sold St Mirren back in 2016 after 20 years at the helm, regularly clashed with Lawwell because he believed that he wielded too much influence at the SFA and SPFL.
He said: “Peter and I haven’t got on that well for the last 10 years. I felt he got too involved in Scottish football in terms of running the puppets that are there. He did a fantastic job of that if you’re a Celtic supporter or a Celtic shareholder. But I’m not convinced it was the best job for Scottish football.
“But Peter certainly did a fantastic job for Celtic. In fact, what he did was incredible. The position that he put Celtic in in Scottish football, not only on the pitch but off the pitch, was astonishing.
“They were pulling all the strings in Scottish football both at the SFA and the SPFL. You can’t take anything away from him for that. My disappointment in Scottish football was that no one challenged him.
“He took full advantage of Rangers being down the leagues. Peter was a major player at both the SFA and the SPFL. The number of times that Celtic going to England was brought up was incredible. It came up at regular intervals. That was my complaint. I would just argue about it.
“Don’t get me wrong, any time we had arguments about it I was looking at the best thing for St Mirren and Peter was looking at the best thing for Celtic. Every single chairman or chief executive in the country does exactly the same thing. If they don’t they wouldn’t be doing their job properly.
“Celtic have a huge fanbase therefore they have a lot of power. It should be the same with Rangers. But I think they are just getting back to it.
“It will be interesting to see the political movements in Scottish football now. I think it (Lawwell retiring) leaves a power vacuum. It will be interesting to see how that is filled and how things take shape in the next two or three years. But I think the governance of the game will be more balanced in future.”
Gilmour added: “But look at what Celtic have done on the pitch in the last 18 years. Financially, Peter has done a fantastic job. They have also enjoyed great success on the pitch. I am sure Dermot Desmond and the other shareholders have been absolutely delighted with his performance.
“You will never keep all the supporters happy, particularly at a big club like Celtic. However, supporters have to recognise what he did do for them. He has done a magnificent job as chief executive of Celtic Football Club. That is who pays his wages.”
Lawwell has come in for scathing criticism from Celtic fans this season as the Parkhead club have performed poorly both domestically and in Europe – there have been calls for him to be sacked and threatening banners have been placed on security fencing outside the stadium.
He issued a public apology earlier this month for the first team squad travelling to Dubai for a warm weather training camp as coronavirus infection rates rose worldwide – a trip that led to Christopher Jullien testing positive for Covid-19 and 13 players and three staff members being forced to self-isolate for 10 days.
A makeshift Celtic side comprising several youth players drew Premiership matches against Hibernian and Livingston at home – allowing league leaders Rangers to pull even further ahead of them in the table.
Gilmour doesn’t feel that controversy has led to Lawwell standing down – but he does reckon the intense pressure he has come under has caused him to call time on his lengthy tenure.
“I think if he had to make that decision (to go to Dubai) again he would make it a different way,” he said. “Peter said as much publicly. But I don’t think that was a deal breaker. I am quite sure Dermot Desmond was keen for him to stay. He has done such a good job. There is no way he is leaving because of that. Not a chance.
“When the trip was booked it was all within the rules and regulations. The public perception of the trip changed all through December.
“Peter is 61. Being the CEO of Celtic Football Club is an extremely stressful job. Peter has probably thought: ‘Okay, it has been a great era, but now it’s time for somebody else to pick up the mantle’.
“I am sure that he and his family wouldn’t have liked the criticism he has got over it. It may have just been the thing that pushed him over the edge. I am sure he must have said: ‘I’m 61. I don’t really need to do this any longer. Why am I doing it? It is time to call it a day’.”
Gilmour is convinced that Lawwell will help McKay, who has worked at Scottish Rugby in a variety of roles for the past 13 years, to settle in to his position at Celtic after he departs in June.
“They are big boots to fill for the new man from Scottish Rugby,” he said. “These aren’t the easiest times for Scottish football either. For somebody to come into the job at this point in time? It is a pretty tough start, there is no question of that. But, to be fair, I don’t think rugby was a particularly easy job. It will be interesting to see.
“There is no doubt that Peter will always be at the end of a phone to give him solid advice. I don’t think he will just walk out the door and not be there. He will be there to be a rock that he can lean on and take advice from. It will be good advice as far as Celtic Football Club are concerned.
“I honestly can’t think of anyone else who would have been able to do such a good job at Celtic.”