One of the most pervasive, and stupid, beliefs that people cling to is the idea that all things are cyclic in nature. It is especially prevalent in sport, and in particular amongst those who followed successful teams and who are going through a bad spell.
I’ve heard it said any number of times, even, once by the otherwise razor sharp Bertie Auld.
I wasn’t even a teenager, but I still remember it. He was at the Lisbon Lions 20-year dinner, which had been filmed by the BBC, and Celtic appeared miles off the pace.
“Football goes in cycles,” he said, “and it will come again.”
At the time it was music to my ears. You want to believe that stuff if you’re in the doldrums. A year later we had won the centenary double and his comments appeared fully vindicated. But it was a false dawn. I was eleven at the time; I wasn’t to see us win another league title until I was 20.
Had I been more astute I would never have fallen into that trap. We were only two years on from Love Street when Bertie made those remarks; he appreciated better than I did, better than most people did, that something had gone far wrong at Celtic Park.
On the point itself, Bertie Auld was wrong. There was nothing inevitable about Celtic’s revival. It wasn’t written in the stars, wasn’t pre-ordained, it wasn’t something about which you could have no doubts. Our comeback took years, and in the end we were rescued from a grisly fate by a no-nonsense man from Canada who’d had more than two years to consider what he would do if he ever got his hands on the prize.
Some people think we were lucky, but I’ve never agreed with that any more than I think that what happened was somehow meant to be. Fergus McCann knew we what we could become, but right from the minute he walked through the doors of Celtic Park there were people trying to steer him off course. Brian Dempsey didn’t believe we should spend the money on the stadium; he thought it should have gone out on the park. Others thought much the same, and many in the press boxes thought Celtic Park would be the ultimate white elephant.
It could have gone wrong in a hundred different ways, a hundred different times.
In fact, I consider the darkest period to have been the one that Paul Cassidy wrote about in his last article, and the second part of which is coming tomorrow; the period when we did abandon restraint and reason and for a year chased a dream by spending money.
Dick Advocaat collected his manager of the year award for that campaign by telling the assorted hacks “I’ll see you again next year.”
12 months later, a far humbler, but more accomplished, Martin O’Neill stood in front of them, with our club on the cusp of a treble. Yet that was no mere accident either. What Fergus had built was capable of a little flex. Those 10,000 seats more than Ibrox have always given us a decisive, and permanent, structural advantage.
None of what happened was luck.
Celtic was building something even as Rangers were being reduced. To finance his crazy ambitions, Murray was auctioning off everything that wasn’t nailed down, everything from multimedia rights to the Rangers Shops. He was cutting back on every major part of the club except football operations even as Celtic was building up its own infrastructure on an even greater scale.
It was not the “cyclic nature of football” which put us on the cusp of our second great era, and another nine in a row; it was cold blooded, rational, forward thinking decision makers inside Celtic Park who did that. Nothing has been left to chance.
Empires fall. It is a fact of history. But they never fall as a result of steady, natural, erosion. They rot from the inside long before they are overthrown from without. They take success for granted. They stop looking at the bigger picture, although always there are warning signs. Always there are Cassandras urging caution or restraint or vigilance.
Dynasties fall in sport as anywhere else. Often they fall because those in charge of them run out of fresh ideas. More often they fall because forces outside their control sweep away everything that had stood before. But there is nothing inevitable about this either, and an event of such awesome proportions could just as easily sweep Sevco away with the tide as elevate them to the position some of their fans believe is theirs by destiny.
A club that remains engaged with the outside world, which keeps costs under control, which doesn’t overextend, which makes good choices, would be able to see such a moment coming and take remedial action. Not only would such a profound change in our football environment present no threat to us, but it could be harnessed to even greater advantage.
There is no earthly reason at all why a club which is well run and which has all the advantages we do should ever have to concern itself with some theoretical monumental shift in power which obliterates it all at a stroke. It is a fanciful idea and yet, more and more, it is the one to which some of our rivals cling desperately.
“It will all come good again,” they believe as if this is a natural, universal, law and not an example of logical fallacy. Even Alex Ferguson is not immune to this nonsense; he has predicted that the Spanish club’s stranglehold on European football, and in particular the Champions League, will end because it will be the end of a current cycle. It will end because another association, another country, probably France or Germany, has the fundamentals spot on.
Ferguson is falling into a common trap here; football fortunes do change, and often rapidly, but it has nothing to do with inevitability. Of course Spain’s time as the dominant football force in Europe was going to end. But there was nothing pre-ordained about which teams or nations would rise to take their place, and that’s where our rivals have it all wrong.
When they talk about the cyclical nature of football they assume that if Celtic falls that it will be Sevco who catch us; that is nonsense. There’s certainly nothing inevitable about that, and indeed there’s much evidence which suggests that Sevco itself might not be around long enough to prove or disprove the theory.
For them to catch us, two things need to happen. One of them we can do something about. The other we can’t. That we can largely prevent the first of them ourselves gives us an awesome advantage that they don’t have.
In the first instance, Celtic has to stumble. There’s an assumption that if we missed the Champions League, or even European group stage football itself. two or three times in a row that this would lead to our collapse or something close to it.
The trouble is, even if such a scenario were even remotely likely to happen the idea that our club would come apart as a result of it just isn’t true.
Celtic does not budget for qualification for the groups and never have and whilst it’s true that three years without European football of any kind would be serious it would not necessarily be fatal in terms of our position in Scotland.
Besides, it takes no account of how easily we could replace one or two years’ losses from that source; sell Moussa Dembele and you’re covered for at least one of them. Sell Kieran Tierney on top of that and you can easily see your way through all three.
Yet even if such a thing were to come to pass and Celtic had to make the kind of drastic cuts which some envision, that does not, in and of itself, mean that we would be caught far less brought down. In order for that to happen another element has to come together; a serious contender, with the right structure and the right plan and the right people in charge has to be there, on hand, to take advantage of any mistakes that we make.
Aberdeen and Hearts are clearly building for the future. Hibs too have ideas beyond the current horizon. These clubs would be in the best position to catch us. That cannot be said for the one at Ibrox. They are an ever evolving shambles and I do believe that in the event we lost out on serious money for two or more years that their response to that would be to go on a major “speculative to accumulate” splurge which could imperil their very existence.
I do not believe they would approach such a moment rationally or with a scintilla of strategic thought. They would see headlines and glory and chase them.
Celtic’s structural advantages over Sevco put us in a position from which we could easily remain unchallenged for a generation. Football does not follow a pattern or progression based on things that are meant to be. Ask Dundee Utd fans if they can ever foresee another period like that which they enjoyed in the 80’s. Ask Aberdeen fans if they believe their club will ever again win a European trophy. They know better than to believe in fate.
This generation of Sevco fans will never see a championship flag fly over Ibrox again. Too much would have to happen, too much would have to change, not only in their club but in ours for that day to ever come. This is what makes their situation different from the one we’re in; Fergus knew that Celtic could be modernised. Sevco is already at or close to its earnings ceiling, and two more years of aiming only to be second will inevitably have an impact on their season ticket sales and that will entail further cutting of costs and the gap will not shrink, it’ll grow.
If they are looking for destiny to save them then, as usual, they are looking in the wrong place.