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No easy cure for Lawwell's headaches

A LITTLE over three weeks ago, Peter Lawwell took centre stage in the foyer of the distinctive W Hotel on the Barcelona seafront, freshly elected to the board of the influential European Club Association at their general meeting and enjoying warm words of congratulation from the great and good of the game.

Another league title wrapped up for Celtic, but the major European leagues continue to grow richer and more powerful
Another league title wrapped up for Celtic, but the major European leagues continue to grow richer and more powerful

You sense the major business at such events is done within the corridors and hallways rather than the bright, breezy and appropriately-branded conference suites, where the media dutifully turn up, note down the usual platitudes at the official briefing and then scurry off into rather more dimly-lit areas to discover where the real stories are.

Certainly, the main reception was abuzz with all manner of footballing dignitaries, some instantly recognisable and others less so, indulging in the businessman's ballet of 'networking'. A collection of Latins gathered in one gloomy corner for a discussion, body language would suggest, of the most Machiavellian proportions.

Some of the Brits headed for the bar area. Unlike those from the smaller nations with their white rectangular ID tags detailing name and club, Ajax's Edwin van der Sar, confident enough to wear boat shoes with a suit, had no need to let people know who he was and Valencia's general manager, Francisco Rufete, by no means a bad player himself, went even further by turning up dressed like something out of a late-90s indie band.

Lawwell, in the midst of all this, became involved in light conversation with delegates from Villarreal as he prepared to pack up and leave for the airport. Despite the warm sun pouring in through the window and showcasing the Mediterranean at its most delightful, it was not difficult to gather that the particular 'challenges' he speaks of for Celtic back in dark, old Scotland are now almost consistently impossible to escape from.

Lack of competition merited a mention. It has clearly not gone unnoticed in Spain, where the twists and turns of a hugely eventful league season are holding a nation in their grip, that the Parkhead club are now making a habit of winning their own championship by a country mile.

After the issues involved in continuing to shift tickets when there is no real bona-fide competition were briefly raised, Lawwell said his farewells to the backdrop of some jokes about Celtic going to play in La Liga in the future. On the face of it, that's all he left with in terms of looking for a way out of the club's current predicament. Handshakes and jollity.

The Celtic chief executive is, without doubt, in a most advantageous political position from which to push for change that will benefit his club whether that be through finding an unlikely escape route to England, which was championed once again by Fergus McCann at the time of that ECA get-together, or being part of something with a more European context.

However, no-one from south of the border appeared to seize Lawwell by the lapels in Barcelona and offer a cunning plan to make the long-held dream of entry into the cash haven of the Premiership come true. All that talk of an Atlantic League, involving sides from Belgium, Holland and elsewhere, seems to have faded, perhaps wisely, into the distance, too.

UEFA's general secretary, Gianni Infantino, undoubtedly a most charming fellow at the best of times, offered faint hope of cross-border leagues in the future by stating that his organisation is "open to discussing everything", but there wasn't a terrific amount of meat in what he had to say on the matter.

Lawwell agreed with the view that Celtic, although understood to be in no mood to stop lobbying behind the scenes, are "stuck with what they've got" for the meantime, after failing to carve out opportunities elsewhere.

"There is nothing really happening at the moment on that," he reported. "We will see if this helps.

"In the last 15 to 20 years, the media values in the big nations have gone beyond anybody's predictions. That has created a great gap between the top and the bottom and we need to find ways of closing that gap."

Yet, no matter the reputation enjoyed elsewhere by Lawwell and Celtic, there is no getting away from this problem that an absence of competition in Scotland is threatening to damage his own club at a time when they have put themselves on a sound financial footing and have Rangers supporters beginning to sweat quietly about the possibility of winning '10-in-a-row'.

Solutions are not easy to come by. As Lawwell spoke yesterday in the wake of a third championship having been secured, his remarks focused largely on "challenges ahead in terms of creating meaningful games" and other clubs from stronger leagues casting envious eyes on players such as Fraser Forster and Virgil van Dijk as well as Neil Lennon and his coaching team.

No matter how much success Celtic enjoy in the straitened world of Scottish football, these headaches are not going to go away any time soon. It will be harder to assemble a squad capable of competing in the Champions League with such paltry revenue available, a fact underlined in a 6-1 loss at the Camp Nou on another recent trip to Catalonia.

Given the way agents work these days, Lennon will have people looking for opportunities he might be interested in, whether he is fully aware of that or not. Who could blame him for trying his luck should an interesting opportunity crop up?

As Lawwell finally made his way through the throng of wellwishers and colleagues at the W Hotel and into his waiting car earlier this month, a team of workmen were toiling hard to repair a glass revolving door that had been smashed as a result of the gale-force winds whirling around the promenade the night before.

Whenever the Celtic chief executive has something to cheer right now, there always seems to be a bout of stormy weather just around the corner.

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