Celtic’s transfer strategy and the Champions League failures coming home to roost

The success of this summer’s transfer window with six first team players signed up, and the streamlining of a bloated squad requested by Neil Lennon was a welcome conclusion to months of jangling nerves.

On top of this there has been a sea change in approach to signing targets, whilst a quality over quantity approach has allowed the wage bill to be focussed on a smaller number of squad players. We’ve also managed to get a good number of fringe players, likely to be starved of football with no organised leagues outside the first team, out on loan and likely to develop far more quickly as a result.

All in all, it has been as successful a transfer window as we could hope for, particularly when you consider that none of the top stars have left the stable this window. When you think Celtic exited the champions’ league and surrendered the pot of gold that comes with it and the club are further hampered by the continuing absence of supporters inside Celtic Park, then the temptation to cash in must have been great.

Yet with a realisation from boardroom level to fans watching games at home that this is the most important season there appears a concerted effort to ensure eyes are on the prize as Celtic push for a record breaking Ten-in-a-Row season.

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Despite this Celtic have created a problem for themselves. While the transfer window was open Neil Lennon appeared frustrated with some of the performance levels of the team and seemed to indicate that there were a few within the ranks who had lost focus from the job in hand. Perhaps some had their heads turned by admiring glances from clubs in bigger leagues with larger pay-packets on offer.

READ THIS…Ryan Christie Blanks Contract Talks, Celtic must avoid ‘another Boyata’ situation

It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that even if those players have re-focussed after the transfer window closed that clubs elsewhere planning ahead may still covet some of our top players. Despite keeping those players in situ for now Celtic haven’t been able to secure the talents of some of these players and will now find themselves open to our stars being targeted and with less room to negotiate large transfer fees.

It wouldn’t be talking out of turn to suggest Celtic have tried to tie down certain players on longer term contracts and met with some resistance. Kris Ajer’s previous agent claimed there was no chance of the Norwegian centre half signing a new deal and even a move to a new international agency hasn’t resulted in a new contract being signed. Celtic may have deflected interest for now from the Likes of AC Milan but it’s fair to say they still hold an interest in the player. As each day of Ajer’s current contract run down the chances of a new deal diminish alongside the transfer value of the player.

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Odsonne Edouard has also gone into the final two years of his contract and despite the club attempting since February this year – with all manner of lucrative add-ons – to extend his deal for a year at least, the young Frenchman’s advisors seem unable to reach agreement with the club. Once again it appears the value of the transfer fee we can hope for will drop with every passing day.

Two others also remain in the same position. Olivier Ntcham and Ryan Christie have both reached similar points in their current contracts and neither look like signing new deals. In the case of Ntcham there is a valuable squad player for Celtic, and although he’s never quite nailed down a first eleven jersey he certainly appears an important cog in the Celtic wheel to Neil Lennon, who has realised with a condensed football calendar and the all to evident threat of Covid-19 on player availability this season that a squad – and a settled one at that – is vital in the important months ahead.

Ryan Christie is another who seems to feel his talents may be better exhibited in a more competitive football league and in one where the constraints of Celtic’s wage structure won’t stop him earning the sums his friends Kieran Tierney and Stuart Armstrong earn in the English Premier league.

This morning’s news that French club Nice may be interested in Ryan is far from surprising and further links for all these players are bound to continue despite the transfer window closing. If Lennon has already raised concerns about form levels during the transfer window, his hopes that focus could be regained may seem fanciful if such links continue.

All of that will of course come out in the wash, however it is worth considering why these players are unwilling to sign new contracts with Celtic and why they seek pastures new. The finances on offer of course play a part, but is it simply that or in the case of Odsonne Edouard, Kris Ajer particularly is there an issue around career development also, and does that issue have an impact on Celtic going forward with future player acquisitions, as well as the retention issues we face with the current squad?

Celtic it should be remembered sell Celtic as a destination based on the chance to compete for trophies, a good coaching environment that has historically improved players, access to European football and a shop window to the bigger leagues, with a success rate we can easily evidence.

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Or at least we could. On one of those selling points Celtic has dropped the ball and it may be a reason for contract extension stalemates and for heads being turned. It may also impact on future signings as a major attraction, champions league football is no longer something Celtic can use to entice players to join the club or encourage contract extensions for those on deals running down.

Celtic aim for untapped markets or we find uncut gems and we go about polishing and developing them, making them players that we can then sell on. Not only do we do that we sell them just that. We don’t ask them to commit to Celtic long term, we sell the two, three, four years from a young age to the point we mould them into a better player. We then show them examples of Wanyama, Van Dijk, Armstrong and Dembele who came through our system and were sold on to the bigger leagues, a better standard of football and great wealth. We tell them we’ll give them shop window and point to current star Odsonne Edouard and show them the next in line, we tell these players that could be them.

These youngsters and their representatives know Celtic are a big club but are also acutely aware Scottish football is a footballing backwater. They know the exposure is limited in that league and as a trade-off we sell them regular European football, Champions League football or at worst the later stages of the Europa league. Season after season we’ll give them that exposure. Year after year we let them down.

There comes night’s like Ferencvaros, or Cluj on the back of AEK Athens and Malmo. Players may not be the brightest but agents aren’t daft. On all available evidence we’re now selling these players a pup and the penny is dropping. Is it any wonder player’s heads are being turned, and when they are is it really fair to blame them?

And the worrying thing now is that when we are trying to replace these players many of these agents will represent many of the players we are targeting, they will know that three consecutive seasons without champions league football and only two out of the last seven seasons seeing Celtic in the group stages, means Celtic at best, will be viewed as a Europa League club and with it may come some second thoughts for young players looking for a Champions league window to exhibit their talents.

Neil Lennon has his streamlined squad and the quality on show looks high. Yet three of those summer signings are loan deals, we also now have four players in the final two years of their contracts and none of them look ready to commit to extensions. With Celtic having kicked the financial can down the road to achieve ten-in-a-row we may find ourselves in the position of having to replace seven first team players next year, financially there may be no choice.

Is the new batch of youngsters then going to be shopped for at the high-end of available talent or has our lack of strategical planning around European qualifiers not only cost us established stars committing to the club, has it also hurt our reputation as we seek the next generation to fill the gaps?

Celtic may be able to fill some of these gaps with a re-set of some description after Ten-in-a-row is concluded, whatever way that plays out. Luca Connell, David Turnbull, Mikey Johnston and Patryck Klimala could well be the next generation ready to kick on when the pressure of the Ten has passed. Despite this, players will need to be purchased. If Celtic lose Ajer and Duffy next season and Diego Laxalt returns to AC Milan, defensively Celtic do not have options within the squad to replace them.

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We of course have made our bed and there is little we can do about the past or our current European reputation, but what we can do is build on a wonderful transfer window and add a strategy around European qualification that ensures we correct the errors we have historically made going forward.

There has been little evidence of any such planning over many years of watching the same Champions League movie end the same way, just with different characters playing the parts. Yet if the current four players unwilling to sign contract extensions impact on the thought of others at the club then we have to ensure we give them reasons for a rethink.

The next step for Celtic after a fine transfer window is to start that planning earlier and ensure more seasons than not Celtic are competing at the top table of European football. It may not stop the exits of Ajer, Edoaurd, Ntcham and Christie, but it may well ensure we stem the flow as we move forward, while at the same time making us an attractive proposition to the next generation of youngsters seeking a platform to showcase their talents. It may also encourage their agents to think of Celtic as a destination worth considering.

Niall J

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor David Faulds has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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