Football, like life, operates in cycles. Without doubt, some things change indefinitely; largely, though, football knits the same patterns with changing materials. These paradigms are part of the beauty of the sport, which is a medium of revolution and transformation. I have always been of the belief that football is won and lost in these transitions; be that from season to season, coach to coach, or attack to defence. It carries on ad infinitum – as acknowledged in a hilarious Mitchell & Webb sketch, “it will never be finally decided who has won the football.” It cannot be emphasised how important it is that Celtic take advantage of their current position of strength, because at some stage the tides of change will take this away.
For four seasons, there was no Rangers in the Scottish Premiership. Within the same period, Hibernian and Hearts took it upon themselves to go on hiatus from the top flight. While the clubs in the league were, of course, participating on merit, the exclusion of three massive Scottish clubs gave Celtic the time and space to push ahead of their rivals. As far as I am concerned, Celtic had two tasks in the Neil Lennon and Ronny Deila periods: assert domestic dominance and build for the future. While the former was achieved, the latter was not.
In 2012 and 2013, the club qualified for the Champions League two years in a row, while succeeding in buying players cheap and selling them on for an enormous profit. However, the club stagnated with regards to developing young talent for the future. Frequently selling talent for profit is a great model for a club like Celtic, but a symptom of this was that the club also failed to develop a robust core of players – something that could have been achieved with better use of the Academy. As the transition was made from Lennon to Deila, it became clear that the club were no longer intent on building for the future by reinvesting Champions League money and transfer profits. In the Norwegian’s first summer, five out of his seven signings were loan deals. Deila did, however, aid the development of core players such as Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic and Leigh Griffiths.
The arrival of Brendan Rodgers, with Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele in tandem, signalled a last-minute turnaround in club policy. With a malaise descending around the club and a buoyant Rangers entering the top-flight, it was necessary that Celtic invested to stay ahead of the game. However, as other sides in the league have improved, Celtic face a similar impasse and must learn lessons from the pre-Rodgers years.
An improved Rangers, Steve Clarke’s overperforming Kilmarnock, recruitment-savvy Hearts, Neil Lennon’s dangerous (albeit underperforming) Hibernian, a well-drilled Motherwell and an in-form St. Johnstone have made the league far more competitive than it was when Rodgers arrived in Scotland. This season, Celtic fans have lamented the failure of the summer transfer window, as the club sold Stuart Armstrong and Moussa Dembele while publicly losing out on the signing of John McGinn.
While Odsonne Edouard was essentially lined up as Dembele’s replacement from the start – and Ryan Christie has emerged as a proxy McGinn – it is not enough to simply replace these players.
Celtic must invest in the long-term if they want to remain the dominant force in Scottish football, while also progressing in Europe. The signing of 22-year-old Vakoun Issouf Bayo looks to be a start, while Timothy Weah and Oliver Burke add temporary attacking options until the end of the campaign. However, Celtic require more than gap-plugging: as rivals improve and the league tightens, the club must be proactive in progressing both on and off the park.
Take Italian champions Juventus as an example. While their budget clearly dwarfs that of Celtic, they have constantly established and re-established their dominance, bringing in a more tactically flexible coach, mixing exciting young prospects with experienced heads, and replacing departing players such as Paul Pogba, Gigi Buffon and Arturo Vidal along the way. One result of an improving Serie A is an improved Bianconeri, pushing the club to greater European heights at the same time.
If Celtic want to take advantage of both their position of strength and having a genuinely top-level coach, they need to invest in a long-term strategy to maintain their dominance. This is not merely on the playing squad front – it can also involve investment in sport science, analysis, recruitment and potentially a Director of Football model – as suggested in a previous article by my esteemed fellow Cynic, Graeme McKay.
In his novel, Chaka, Thomas Mofolo marks the death of the titular Zulu King with a poignant lamentation: “even great pools dry away”. Celtic will not rule Scottish football forever, but their task is to prolong their dominance for as long as possible.