Celtic released their financial figures for the first half of the year yesterday, to some fanfare.
The club made a profit, and that’s never going to be bad news, but dig a little deeper and there are some causes for concern alright.
The profit came almost solely from the sale of Virgil Van Dijk, in what has become a familiar story of our club realising “healthy” numbers because we’d weakened the playing squad.
It also hides the fact that even with season ticket money in, we would have finished the half-year barely getting by with the back end of the season looming.
The second part of these figures, which will show the profit and loss statement for the full season, are likely to be poor, but the real sting might not be coming at the end of this season but at the midway point of next, because of two things.
First is that the annual accounts are going to show how serious was our abject failure in Europe, with a paltry Europa League run to massage the numbers somewhat but with total cash generated from that source set to be far, far less than what we’d have seen from a run in the Champions League.
Simply put, the way the club is structured at the moment means that we’d have made a loss over the season had we not sold our key defender.
That should have alarm bells ringing all over Celtic Park, because if we fail to reach the Champions League groups again next season the need to sell a top tier star is going to be acute.
Which brings us to the second potential problem; at the current time, with the way the team’s form has been going, there are only a few players in the squad right now who look as if they would command a hefty transfer fee.
Last season I’d have said Stefan Johnansen was one of them; we’d be lucky to get £2.5 million for him with the way he’s been playing.
Nir Bitton could possibly command a big fee, but without the exposure of Europe past Christmas the kind of people watching him can only compare him against SPL quality sides, and that’s not likely to impress anyone who watches our team right now.
The only other player who might have caught the eye of clubs willing to splash the cash is Leigh Griffiths. I don’t think it would be scaremongering to predict a full-scale meltdown in the Celtic support if we were daft enough to take that particular road.
This locks us into a vicious circle … which results in empty seats, even for matches which should excite our supporters.
The absence of a sustained run in Europe, in front of full houses, damages Celtic financially.
That’s a pure and simple fact.
When you look at attendances for Europa League games, with the upper half of stands shut and such, you see how unimpressed the fans are with what they’re watching on the pitch and the leadership being shown off it.
I don’t accept that this is simply because fans don’t want to watch Europa League football; even at its worst it is a cut about what we do watch every week.
Ajax, Fenerbahce and Molde weren’t high calibre names, but they offered a better class of opponent than our SPL rivals would have.
Interest in those games ought to have been higher than it was.
For the opening tie, against Fenerbahce, we had 47,500 inside Celtic Park; a healthy attendance but still 12,500 below capacity.
That’s an extra £300,000 in gate receipts alone that might have been realised in better circumstances.
For the second game, against Molde, we lost a further 10,000 paying customers, with an attendance of just over 37,000.
For the third match, against Ajax, the attendance went up slightly, to 40,000 but even for that match, against an excellent European side which should have been a wonderful occasion, we were 20,000 short of meeting the capacity of the ground.
Inside Celtic Park, these numbers will be viewed with enormous disquiet.
Second tier competition football played in front of empty stands ….
That’s not the way to sell Celtic’s global brand, and the guys in our boardroom know that as well as anyone.
What the board faces in the summer is one of the biggest choices it has ever made, and it can’t be smoke and mirrors, an exercise in PR to appease the fans for 24 hours, like unveiling Larsson as the manager and riding an early wave of optimism before the appropriate questions start; does he really have the experience to manage Celtic? What’s he done as a boss? How does he react under pressure?
Whatever changes are made, they have to be genuinely exciting.
They have to inspire real belief in the fans that the Good Ship Celtic is turning around and charting a new course.
Whatever else the board might hide behind – and many have accused them of using the manager as a human shield these past few months, something I don’t think you can argue with – these numbers speak for themselves.
A lot of our fans are disgusted by what they perceive to be a lack of ambition; it does not matter whether they are right or wrong. This isn’t about what’s fair here.
But paradoxically, those guys are easier to please than other supporters might prove to be.
Show them a sign of life and they will come home.
Other fans will be tougher to get to, those who are apathetic and just fed up. They’re the kind of guys who will not buy into any change unless they first see the effects of that change out on the pitch. But they too want to be won over and brought back to the fold.
There is a title to win, and a huge game today … but the biggest decisions and the biggest battles facing Celtic are those that lie off the field, as yesterday’s numbers showed.
I am not a fan of the present “strategy”, but I know where we play our football and what the financial constraints on us are.
I also know that if we’re going to expand our name and our brand beyond these horizons we need to do a Hell of a lot better than we’re doing now.
Right now, the big guns would not want us in a European super league.
Our name no longer rings out and noobody, anywhere in the world, who hasn’t heard of Celtic yet is going to fall in love with a second tier European side that sees its future as a feeder club for a team south of the border. That tends to make the magic fade, just a wee bit, no matter how strong the magic is.
It’s the magic we need to get back first, and that starts in the stands.
The board needs to give us a reason to believe again.