Right Back Gap – Celtic playing Russian roulette with Champions League Millions

AS CELTIC head towards the friendly game at home to Rennes tomorrow afternoon it makes us all the more aware that the start of the domestic season is almost upon us. The new season tickets will get their first airing. The real stuff has already started in Europe. The quest for 9 in a row is ready to begin.

We’ve had 3 players in and 12 players out as the wage bill has been slashed and the squad’s balance is in the process of being addressed. We look leaner that’s for sure but we’re still short on what Neil Lennon has asked for. Well short in some places.

We’ve a good result under our belts after a great result away to FK Sarajevo on Tuesday night, but if there was one thing that shone through in the 3-1 win in rain soaked Bosnia it was that the defence looked porous. There are too many square pegs in round holes to be considered a unit ready to commence battle. Better opposition will smell blood if that defence takes the field as we progress through the qualifiers.

Central defence was the issue last season in the qualifiers, and a lack of attention to the matter cost us dearly. This season although we still require one central defender it’s at right back where we’re all getting a bit edgy. Rightly so.

Bar the opening half hour in Sarajevo the defence had little to do but it’s evident that having Kris Ajer deputising at right back shows we are lacking in a key area. His having to deputise weakens a strong area of our side when he’s moved from his central defence position

The right back situation is now becoming wearisome. We’ve clearly known Lustig’s contract was not being renewed since at least April based on the leaked scouting document. We now know Lennon doesn’t yet trust Anthony Ralston to fill in at right back in important games. Yet still we ponder and hesitate. Our attempts to employ appear to be cumbersome.

We’ve been linked with Jack Stacey and beaten to the punch by Bournemouth. George Baldock at Sheffield United has been linked but information coming from Sheffield United indicates that approaches are in no way being welcomed. We’ve tried to get Tommy Smith as we drop our attentions to Championship level. At the time of writing we have at least had a bid accepted but we’re being outfought over personal terms by Stoke City.

The fact of this matter is that we’re struggling to get one in and what we need is two. Maybe then we should get the 2nd one in before the first.

Stephen O’Donnell at Kilmarnock may not float everyone’s boat in terms of a right back, but you know what he’s solid, dependable, been capped by Scotland and just what we need as that back up right back. He’s already a proven Premiership performer and at the higher end and he’s not stopped improving. His contract expires in a year. Surely we get the lad in now and get him bedded in and up to speed. Make the call, ask for what they want. Offer Killie a squad player on loan, be it Ralston himself, Calvin Miller or Jack Hendry. Would Killie reject a £1 million bid? I doubt it especially if they had cover heading from Celtic.

The club would be buying themselves some breathing space to chase a first choice right back, and we do need two anyway. Let’s get this one done.

And on the subject of the right back. If we’re replacing a 75 times capped international full back of the quality of Lustig any chance we can up the budget a little for a first choice? So far our reported bids have been anywhere from £2.5 million to £4 million.

In January we nearly signed Timothy Castagne from Atalanta, the player himself admitted it was close to being done. Now his form and interest from Roma amongst others doesn’t make this a viable deal now, but we were willing to spend north of £8million on him. We clearly were aware how important that position was going to be for this season so let’s stop thinking we can suddenly do this on the cheap.

Back in April I put up Robert Gumny as my choice.

He’s 21 years old and a pacey right back for Lech Poznan. I believe we were sniffing around last year and apparently injury cooled our interest. Gumny now has 70 plus appearances under his belt. He is capped 7 times at under 21 level and having previously looked to be on his way to Borussia Monchengladbach the time is now to pounce.

Gumny has admirers already and won’t be remaining at Lech Poznan. Of course we are buying potential but he has now made over 70 appearances and despite his injury issues this year he had played 33 times the previous season, including 5 European appearances. He also has winning experience having won the Polish Super Cup in 2016. He’ll also have clear re-sale value should he show up well for Celtic.

It looks like any bid would need to be nearer £6 million than five, but given just 6 months ago we were willing to spend more on Castagne can we not consider the kid and stretch the budget for a vital position?

Moving on to other parts of the squad. These positions aren’t as desperate as right back but Lennon has made it clear he wants extra cover.

We have three central defenders and we need a minimum of four. Jack Hendry is the fourth but I just don’t see him being trusted unless he can get out on loan and build his own confidence in himself and the supporters in him.

In Simunovic, Ajer and Jullien we have 3 good defenders, but three is not enough to go the season in four competitions. Simunovic himself is somewhat injury prone so it would be prudent surely to look to fill that position too. Nir Bitton was called in as emergency cover on Tuesday to allow Kris Ajer to take a step to the right back slot.

We know Lennon wants another midfielder as the David Turnbull saga showed clearly and despite that deal collapsing there is still no sign of an incoming for that position. With Olivier Ntcham recently publicly announcing his intention is to leave, we now need to buy before we sell. He cannot be allowed to return with an attitude that could spread to others.

It’s good to see the club linked with Romaine Sawyers at Brentford. In the last year of his contract his fee may be no more than £3 million, perhaps as low as £2.5million.  He is one of the best performing central midfielders in the English Championship and with a side who play good quality passing football. However with Leeds United showing interest I hope we are also looking at alternatives given the position Ntcham has now put us in.

Those positions can wait. Possibly until the English transfer window closes. Right back cannot.

This position is a priority and needs to be addressed as such. Whoever signs needs to get match fit and bedded in with teammates.

It’s already taken Christopher Jullien 2 weeks just to be considered for a friendly. We cannot wait around, get a last minute signing and simply throw him in. We may get away with that in the next round of qualifiers should we progress but after that any weakness is likely to be punished.

We’ve already made one error in letting Lustig leave without a replacement. We cannot compound that error by resting on our laurels over a key position in the team.

Let’s not make the same mistakes as last season by gambling and leaving our Champions League fate to chance. Recent history show us that story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Yesterday UEFA announced how much money the clubs will make from participating in the Champions League this season. The total prize fund is an eye watering £2.3Billion for all UEFA competitions with £1.8Billion heading to the Champions League and Super Cup.

If Celtic make it through to the fourth qualifying round but miss out on the Group stages they are guaranteed £4.5million. However getting to the Group stages will see a minimum of £13million coming into the Parkhead coffers. We’ll also earn £2.4million for a Group stages victory and £800k for getting a draw. If we get through the Group stages – if we make it we’ll be third seeds in the Group – that will bring an additional £8.5million into the club.

Add three additional sell-out crowds with 60,000 under the disco lights and it is mouth-watering money that is at stake. Why play Russian roulette with this for the sake of spending on a decent right back?

Niall J

About Author

The Celtic Star founder by and is editor, who 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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