On 25 May this year, on the anniversary of the greatest triumph in the history of the club, and with another historic accomplishment just completed, even as the supporters were celebrating that fact, the Celtic board offered Neil Lennon, our interim boss, a man who took the job after the resignation of Brendan Rodgers, the full time post as manager.
It was a choice that even Lennon’s supporters must admit was controversial. There is no way of knowing how much of the support was in favour of that decision, but that there was a large and vocal section of the fan base that was wholeheartedly opposed to it cannot be denied.
In response, I penned a furious article, one of the angriest I’ve ever written, at a time when I should have been toasting the most successful Scottish team in generations.
I was angry in part because I did not support the decision, but I was angrier, by far, with the cynical timing of the announcement and the way it was made. It was exploitative. It was designed to fall at a time when the board knew the angry voices would be drowned out by fans who did not want the occasion ruined, as though we were the ones who’d ruined it.
Lawwell and his board knew it would drive a wedge between those who supported the appointment and those who did not.
In the days that followed, myself and others had to read all manner of nonsense about how we were behaving like “enemies within.”
I blame Lawwell and the board for that response; they had counted on it.
In the mind-bending press conference that followed, Peter Lawwell openly boasted about how he had never even considered other candidates for the job.
The man who sits at the apex of the football operation and who is paid the highest salary at the club didn’t even look at their CV’s.
It was, and it remains, the single greatest act of gross irresponsibility and corporate failure that I have seen at Celtic since the era of the Kelly’s and Whites, and it came at the end of a season in which Lawwell’s ego had clashed dramatically with that of the hugely successful Rodgers and fed into the situation that saw him depart the club with the season half done.
Last night, Lawwell’s shabby decision making resulted in the potential loss of tens of millions of pounds.
Neil Lennon carries the can for the performance, but he didn’t appoint himself. He was chosen above all the other managers out there, for all his flaws – and they are legion – by men who had made their minds up and used the Scottish Cup as their validation.
We will never know how they would have justified it and sold it to us had we lost that day.
Frankly it’s a question I never troubled myself with, because in spite of them 3Treble was a triumph I never wanted further sullied with speculative scenarios and talk of what might have been.
Looking back on it now, I don’t even think they’d have tried. They’d have appointed him – of that there is absolutely no doubt – and we’d have been expected to wear it, whether we liked it or not. That they hold the fans in contempt has never really been up for debate, not since the chairman accused some of us of racism for daring to question whether or not we should have a man like Ian Livingstone on the board, a Tory peer who had voted for austerity.
(He is Jewish, and although nobody but a very few internet goons knew that, far less cared, far less brought it up Ian Bankier shamefully accused those who criticised him of being motivated by antisemitism instead of his right wing politics and the way he had used his position of influence to inflict hardship on people who were already struggling.)
It should have been his last.
That he survived that is outrageous, but it is no more outrageous than the never ending story of Peter Lawwell, the highest paid person in Scottish football, who has been at Celtic for seventeen years. It is almost unheard of, in any industry in the modern age.
In Price Waterhouse Cooper’s 2017 Global Strategy document, they pointed out that the average “shelf life” for a chief executive or senior operating manager in the leading 2500 companies traded on the NYSE is five years.
After that, things get stale.
Strategies start to repeat themselves.
A company is like a football team; it needs an overhaul after a while.
Peter Lawwell has been at Celtic through the reigns of six different managers and seven managerial tenures. He is the only senior official at Celtic to have appointed the same man to that post twice. His appointments have had varying degrees of success.
O’Neill, Strachan, Mowbray, Lennon, Deila and Rodgers have all worked at Celtic under him. Five years into his tenure, his failure to properly fund Strachan’s final transfer window cost us a league title and the manager left soon afterwards.
He appointed Mowbray who was a disaster and lasted less than a season.
He appointed Lennon as interim boss and then gave him the job despite the manager having exactly zero experience and that cost us another league championship. He refused to take any responsibility for those things. He never even considered his position.
The best thing that ever happened to Lawwell at Celtic happened at Ibrox, and there is a widespread belief that he may even have mishandled that.
Lennon had a free run at the league for several years, and when he left – tired of the restraints our board had imposed on him – we appointed, as his replacement, the man Lawwell had originally intended to come in and work as the assistant manager.
The chickens came home to roost on 17 April 2016, when the NewCo knocked us out of the Scottish Cup and the board was forced to accept that the Deila experiment hadn’t worked and that the club had gone backwards as a result.
Lawwell has always been a lucky man though, and for once our board acted decisively and they appointed the best manager they could find in Brendan Rodgers. Two trebles and two successive Champions League group stage qualifications followed.
And then Lawwell decided to grab a grenade, pull out the pin, and roll it under the manager’s desk.
There was wrong on both sides, but when the CEO authorised a public attack on Brendan Rodgers via the BBC he didn’t wait until a crucial Champions League qualifier was in the rear-view. He did it on the night of the game.
There was no going back from that.
Peter Lawwell has been the beneficiary of nearly a decade of self-inflicted damage at Ibrox.
But for that spell, we have no way of knowing where we’d be and what his record would look like, but the failures of Strachan’s last season, the Mowbray disaster and the decision to appoint an untried managerial rookie in his place do not suggest it would have gone well.
That he has repeated the same mistake in appointing Lennon again, a man whose post-Celtic Park record was the sack at Bolton and “mutual consenting” at Easter Road hammers home the message that this guy is either shockingly complacent or someone who learns nothing.
Lawwell is out of ideas, and that’s been evident for years now.
For all that, he is trusted to make these decisions by a board that is all but invisible and which is wholly unaccountable to the fans. Who are the people who run Celtic? Do they do so on a daily basis? No, they have other interests outside the club.
They show up on match days, they hob-nob in their executive dining room and then go off to their real jobs again.
The most visible, other than Lawwell, is Dermot Desmond, of course. He is widely regarded as the true decision maker at the club, which is an absurdity as he is merely the largest shareholder and has never shown the slightest interest in even being chairman.
But the rest of the board are viewed – probably rightly – as nodding donkeys doing his bidding.
For all the alleged “professionalism” at our club, it is a bizarre way to run a business with a £100 million turnover.
It is a shocking way to run a football team.
There is a vacuum at Celtic where power should be, and nature abhors a vacuum and Lawwell has moved to fill it.
His fingerprints are all over that disaster last night, from the Lennon appointment itself to the club’s abject transfer policy which they jokingly refer to as “risk averse” but which has probably cost us a nine figure sum in the last ten years based on failures to reach the Champions League groups, even when the path ahead of us seemed free of danger.
The last four teams to knock us out have not been amongst the great sides of Europe; their names, for posterity, are Maribor, Malmo, AEK Athens and Cluj.
Maribor, in 2014, finished bottom of their Champions League group with 3 points. The year after it, Malmo finished in the same position with the same points in their group. Last season, AEK Athens got there ahead of us and didn’t win a single point. If Cluj even get there at all I will be very, very surprised. They are probably the least impressive side out of the four of them. It is not ridiculous to suggest that these were beatable teams.
But in 2014 we failed to strengthen properly prior to the Legia Warsaw matches – our signings were Craig Gordon on a free and Jo Inge Berget on loan – and were destroyed over the two legs only for UEFA to grant us a reprieve.
What did we do with that reprieve? We sold Fraser Forster for £10 million and brought in Denayer and Tonev on loan.
We spent not one extra penny.
We failed utterly to maximise our chances and we paid the ultimate price for that with a double humiliation.
The following season, we nickel and dimed our transfer business with a permanent deal for loanee Denayer for £1.5 million, Saidy Janko, Logan Bailly on frees and a loan deal for Man Utd youth Tyler Blackett (remember those guys, eah?). Oh yeah, and we got the manager’s “first choice” signing, Nadir Ciftci from Dundee United and, inexplicably, Scott Allan.
After we’d crashed out of Europe’s premier competition we recouped all that cash and more when we punted Virgil Van Dijk and replaced him with Jozo Simunovic. We also bought Ryan Christie, but sent him back to Inverness on loan.
This is what “preparing us for Europe” looks like at Celtic Park, and that it has so often resulted in utter failure should hardly be a surprise.
We repeat this nonsense year after year, and in the campaign of 2013-14, where James Forrest struck late at home to knock out Karagandy, we had walked the fine line by perversely weakening the team prior to every round in the Champions League qualifiers.
Wanyama was sold before Cliftonville. We sold Gary Hooper prior to the qualifier against Elfsborg. Coming out of that game – just two days after the away leg – and with the Ukrainian’s on the horizon, Neil Lennon was forced to let go of Kelvin Wilson.
On the night of the home tie, which we won 3-0, there was not a single new player from those who had completed the previous season in our starting eleven; Amido Balde, Virgil Van Dijk, Steven Mouyokolo and Derk Boerrigter were all absent for one reason or another.
That we were damned lucky to go through hardly needed pointing out.
We learned so many lessons from that, of course, that Maribor followed the next year and Malmo after that. None of that had to happen. None of those defeats were necessary.
Of course, fans barely need reminding of how we “prepared” for Europe last time around, with the Athens game coming slap bang in the middle of the manager’s dummy spitting and the farcical saga of John McGinn having ended just days before.
Prior to that one, we had made just four signings, and two of those were permanent deals for players who had been at the club the year before. We had re-signed Emilio Izzaguire on a short term deal, and an Australian youth on loan who had never played a senior club match in his life.
Last season’s summer was a calamity which in any other industry would have cost the CEO his job, and it was exacerbated by his public falling out with the manager which led to months of uncertainty and behind the scenes chaos.
Before the window shut – after it was too late to matter – we showed the full scope of our ambitions and intent when we brought in a Leicester City reserve on loan, an Arsenal youth player and signed Youssouf Mulumbu on a free after he’d been available for months.
Our Champions League failure was offset by the sale of Moussa Dembele shortly before the window closed, and too late for us to sign a replacement.
January came, and we brought in more loanees and haggled over a few hundred grand for a striker who has yet to hit the ground. We signed a Ukrainian winger the manager said he didn’t want and who we promptly let go back to his club for six months.
And then the manager quit, in February, and we pretended to be surprised.
We hired Lennon on an interim basis, watched as we squeaked our way through crucial league games and lost at Ibrox, and with fans expecting a proper Rodgers replacement we offered him the job in the shower room after a cup final win which was greeted as much with relief as satisfaction.
None of this has been the result of events beyond our control, which is to say none of these were things forced on us by external factors. These setbacks are the results of far-reaching decisions which have been taken inside our club.
They are the results of the choices we’ve made; of the policies we’ve decided to follow.
This is the strategy. This is the plan.
Of course, that is a little speculative because nobody at Celtic Park thinks explaining the strategy to us is worth the time or trouble. The commercial side of the club works overtime, to bring in as much money from us as possible.
But nobody ever explains the correlation between that and these grinding failures to strengthen the squad.
The board treats the fans like mugs.
They see us purely as customers, fools to be sold cheap tat and horrible third strips.
They have no respect for our views, and this is revealed time and time again. The contempt with which people inside the club have for the support is clearly expressed whenever they talk about social media, which they profess not to care about.
No wonder the board and the manager disdain them.
This is a board that has no lines of communication with the supporters and who don’t want any.
The AGM is a farcical affair where they make decisions by diktat knowing there aren’t enough votes in the room to oppose a single one.
To cap it off, the main fan organisations are specifically prohibited, by their own constitutions, from criticising the club or the strategy in any way, shape or form.
When I tell people this they flatly refuse to believe it, but it’s true nonetheless.
And we laugh at the Ibrox fans and their pliability.
The club has other policies which neuter fans, and not all of them are obvious but one should be.
The “home ticket scheme” locks fans into buying Europa League tickets if they want to qualify for cup semis and finals.
It is a form of blackmail, and it is the only thing that guarantees that group stage games in that second rate tournament won’t take place in front of empty stands. Celtic supporter’s buses should withdraw from it en masse, but the Association will continue to support it even though it is a means of keeping everyone in line.
There is no stomach for a fight there.
I know a dozen people who’ve already said the idea of attending Thursday night matches in that second tier tournament holds no appeal. But they’ll be there, and they admit it, because they might miss out on Hampden tickets later on. That too might be a gamble with no upside.
You have to get to Hampden to need tickets for it, and nothing should be taken for granted.
Empty seats are the only language that this board understands or will respond to, and that was proved in Deila’s second season when the European games were played in front of closed upper tiers. That focussed minds, and Brendan Rodgers was the response we got.
Celtic fans need to take some responsibility here.
Only they can change this.
Real questions should have been asked this time last year when we endured a calamitous summer that put the manager on the brink of walking.
Somehow the people in charge escaped the scrutiny.
Lennon’s appointment was another chance to put them under pressure and make them explain the long term plan. But the Lennon fan club had its day and all talk of asking such questions was swept aside.
This board is not interested in serving us, only serving itself.
There is no long term strategy here that anyone can accurately identify. The people in charge of our club are hiding behind the domestic successes secured by Rodgers and Lennon, who inherited his team and played with his tactics for the latter part of that campaign.
Beyond simply winning this year’s title, I couldn’t tell you what they regard as good enough. The appointment of Lennon looked like, was, and has proved to be, a colossal backward step in terms of our European reputation and standing.
Do not expect explanations. Do not expect a detailed run-down on where they see us going from here.
An organisation stuck in the mud as we are would conduct a full-scale strategic review, and the starting point would be whether or not the CEO can still justify his salary.
This board appointed a third tier manager this summer, and I said at the time that right there you could judge their vision and their ambitions for this club.
Last night came as no shock as awful as it was. Is this good enough for most supporters?
It must be or there would be some attempt to change it.
Our Association will not rock the boat. Our shareholders organisation has sat in mute silence on our strategy for years now.
I criticise Club 1872, but their members have balls … they fight for something. Our own shareholders group is too busy playing politics; what damned good does that do us as a footabll club? Where is their focus on the things that matter to the fans?
I know how this ends.
We’re going to be told to sit on our frustration and “get behind the team for the next game.”
It is ever thus, and that’s how we’ve ended up here.
The board treats us with contempt because we deserve it.
They are unaccountable because we will not hold them to account, and even now there’s no real will to do it.
I sometimes wonder what it will take.
And I worry that we might be about to find out.