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Balance in black, growing in green

THE bottom line of the Champions League is that it brings both a smile to disinterested accountants and to partisan fans.

The likes of Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama, Biram Kayal and Adam Matthews have all been part of a focused recruitment strategy
The likes of Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama, Biram Kayal and Adam Matthews have all been part of a focused recruitment strategy

The scenes at Celtic Park yesterday were of frantic preparations for tonight's last 16 tie with Juventus, with the beep-beep of reversing lorries being accompanied by the din of television companies assembling the paraphernalia necessary to beam a match across the world.

Inside the stadium, Peter Lawwell sat with the sort of contentment reserved for a Zen master or, perhaps more precisely, for a chief executive who has led their club to £15m pre-tax profit in what was supposed to be a financial climate resembling a nuclear winter.

There was no surprise in the buoyant figures for Celtic yesterday for the six months to December 12. The participation in the Champions League group stages and the sale of Ki Sung-Yueng to Swansea City for £6m combined to more than satisfy corporate accountants and reduce bank debt to almost negligible levels. "We know our business," said Lawwell, in deference to any notion that he was shocked by the impact of the Champions League.

The differential between participation in the Europa League and the tussles with the big boys was described as "a chasm" in financial terms. Celtic do not budget for Champions League participation but are well aware of the benefits it brings.

The question that consumes Lawwell is where he can take the club from this solid foundation. He cited the £2.2bn ocean of debt that swamps European football and emphasised his club's distance from this economics of the madhouse but he also knows that the prudence of Celtic will only be rewarded in the long term if the champions break free of domestic constraints.

There is just the hint of a shift in the tectonic plates underpinning European football. "For Celtic and Scottish football we need to look at more radical solutions," said Lawwell. "Maybe they are beginning to present themselves in Europe."

The chief executive was at the European Club Association meeting last week and detected "a mini breakthrough". He said: "UEFA are beginning to realise there is a chasm and something has to be done. They are opening their minds up to the possibility of regional leagues."

This will be dismissed by some as hope posturing as expectation but there has already been moves to unite the Russian and Ukraine leagues. "UEFA will wait for a proposition. If that comes on and that's accepted, then there is a principle set," he said. "That changes the whole dynamic. Not just for Celtic, for the whole of Scottish football." And beyond.

Reflecting on the proposed re-alignment of the Scottish leagues, he said: "We will get a lift out of reconstruction. It's not perfect, but it's the best. Further forward, as a group and a nation, we need to look for a more radical solution."

A UK league? "Possibly, but who knows? It's far too early to say. UEFA are opening their mind and there is a possible proposition coming from Russia, Ukraine and maybe Belarus," he said. "For the first time in my time there is a feeling of change; an acceptance that the small nations just cannot compete with the big nations. That's a big problem – within big leagues like England, Spain and Italy there is polarisation as well.

"That's been realised and the financial fair play situation within the English Premier League will hopefully level it up. People are beginning to realise competition has been lost. You need competition in any sport. Hopefully we as Celtic and Scotland will be able to take advantage of that."

This, of course, is the nub of the Celtic dilemma. Lawwell, long before Rangers went into administration, ruefully described the business model for football in Scotland as being in need of drastic re-structuring.

He has tied the club to a strategy that involves investment in youth development, scouting, and subsequently selling players on. This requires both the personnel to discover such talent and a manager to buy into the system and bring the best from recruits. Lawwell paid proper tribute to Neil Lennon, his manager, and John Park, the head of football development at the club. Their efforts have combined to bring Gary Hooper, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Adam Matthews, Emilio Izaguirre, Efe Ambrose, Biram Kayal and many others.

The Champions League success has given the chief executive some room to manoeuvre in the summer as clubs circle around Hooper and Wanyama. "We can keep on our big players," he said, confirming he will meet Hooper's advisers this week to discuss a new contract offer.

The likelihood, of course, is that Hooper and others will move on but this is part of the Celtic strategy. The sell-on fees will form part of the financial foundation that Celtic need to build upon but the departure of players of such a standing obviously has an impact on further participation in the group stages of the Champions League and beyond. It is why the progress of Dylan McGeouch, Tom Rogic, Marcus Fraser, and James Forrest will be closely monitored by Lawwell.

Asked about the Armageddon scenarios forecast in the wake of the collapse of Rangers, Lawwell showed a neat side step but did conceded: "These figures are better than what we budgeted for. We did not budget for the Champions League, but we know our business, we know what it means to be in the Champions League. Going back to summer, we said we could operate on a stand alone basis and we can."

There was nary a hint of change in his facial expression. But it is safe to assume that it is not just the fan and accountant who are smiling at Celtic Park.

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