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Money can't buy them players . . .

THE cries of "sack the board" outside Celtic Park on Tuesday night might have echoes of 1994 but any further comparison invites the charge of ridicule.

Supporters gather to protest outside Celtic Park on Tuesday night. Picture: SNS
Supporters gather to protest outside Celtic Park on Tuesday night. Picture: SNS

Celtic were on the brink when Fergus McCann took over. The accusation now is that they have too much money salted away in bank accounts and have a severe reluctance to spend it.

This has been a recurrent theme at Celtic and it has been answered robustly in the past. Interested observers should expect Celtic to reiterate, soon and strongly, that all the money brought into the club has been re-invested in players and infrastructure and that the manager, Ronny Deila, will be backed in the transfer market.

The problem for Celtic is that the turmoil following the departure from the Champions League is deep-rooted and has some causes that are beyond the control of the club.

Two years ago Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, said the business model in Scottish football was unsustainable. Good management on and off the field has tempered that reality with moments of glory in the Champions League. This essential truth can not be denied.

Of course, Maribor of Slovenia and Legia of Warsaw have lower budgets, but Celtic are operating in an environment where anything less that their best will be punished. A transitional side with a new manager was a combination that provoked warnings rather than inspired hope.

The most chilling piece of news for Celtic fans in a dispiriting week was that Cameron Jerome, a strong but workmanlike striker, chose Norwich City in the Championship over a tilt at the Champions League.

At 28, Jerome would seem not to be an example of Celtic's normal policy of buying to sell on. But such was Deila's need that Jerome was a viable target. He preferred East Anglia over Scotland and this was not about salary.

The board, then, has a problem. It seeks to improve the team so that it can compete in the Champions League. But players who would make that transition from qualifier to group stage more likely just do not want come to Scotland.

Celtic can source midfielders and defenders who can be improved but the striking positions are a different market entirely.

The argument that Celtic should just lump money on a a £10m striker falls on several levels. First a £10m striker would want an annual wage that would equate to a further £20m over four years. This is a lot of eggs to place in one frail basket. This gamble to gain £15m in group stage money, though, is ruled out by the certainty that a £10m striker would have options in bigger leagues and those include the Championship in England. So what is the precise state of Scottish football and how can Celtic overcome the constraints of playing in a league that is not sponsored and offers television revenue of about 1.5% of the bottom club in the Barclays Premier League?

"My prognosis is a gloomy one for Celtic and Scottish football," said David Low, who might not have been chanting Sack the Board in 1994 but played an influential role in McCann's takeover of the club.

The financial analyst added: "After a generation of debt-fuelled distortion, Scottish football is returning to its natural level, which is a low level. Sir David Murray introduced debt to the Scottish game in the 1980s and ended it in 2008 when the economy and banks imploded. We've been de-gearing ever since. The net result is we are returning to the way it used to be.

"A more level financial playing field, not distorted by debt but at a much lower level. Celtic are now in a financial league of their own and are being dragged down to the average. Each year they step into Europe will be a bigger step and the spectre of early European knockouts will be the norm. Celtic is financially around 10 times bigger and sounder than all the other larger clubs and can expect to be kings of a small football principality here on in. Scottish football should be part-time.

"It's a very depressing scenario if you've grown up competing with the best in Europe."

Celtic have tried to fight these financial imperatives by improving the scouting system and developing talent at Lennoxtown. It is a battle where the regular bloody nose can be expected. There are two roads to regular success. The first is a move to another league and there seems a major roadblock on that option.

The second is to persist with a business model that will allow a culture of bringing through players to the first team whether by development or by prudent purchase. This has its inevitable risks.

Celtic are favoured by the Platini principle in that the Scottish champions are seeded in Champions League qualifiers. Even so, it might now be realistic to expect that the lucrative field of the group stages might be reached by the Scottish champions in perhaps two out of four years. Supporters may growl at this suggestion. Some clamour for big-spending while others make sober cases for modest investment.

But the paradox for Celtic is that money is not so much the solution but the problem. They have enough of it to spend but their frontline targets remain out of reach.

Bluntly, players good enough to ensure Champions League football - and such guarantees are impossible to give - do not want to come to Scotland. That Celtic can not spend their way out of a problem may bring howls of derision.

But it does make it less true.

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