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No Rangers, but Old Firm brand tops Celtic agm agenda

THESE are heady times for Celtic.

Barcelona have been beaten, the team stands on the cusp of the last 16 of the Champions League, and domestic dominance is just about guaranteed for several years to come.

Little wonder, then, that yesterday's annual general meeting was about as confrontational and feisty as two old dears arguing over whose turn it is to pay for afternoon tea.

Aside from a gripe about parking and a request for salads to be sold alongside the matchday pies and Bovrils, the overriding view was that all is rosy in the Celtic garden.

Of course there is still one subject that rankles and its very mention was enough to cause the shareholders to shift uneasily in their seats. Rangers, in contrast to their Glasgow neighbours, have endured an horrific year.

They fell into administration and were later liquidated, the playing squad was decimated, and the club was forced to start again as a new company in the lowest tier of senior football. Despite all of that, however, the spectre of Rangers still loomed large over yesterday's proceedings.

The Ibrox club's demise seemed to have also brought to an end the Old Firm brand, the flag of convenience that allows two great rivals to join as one whenever the occasion suits them.

With no derbies likely for several years and their Scottish Premier League voting pact obliterated, all that remains of this relationship is a joint shirt sponsorship.

It is nothing new – companies for years have backed both clubs for fear of being boycotted by supporters of the other if they support only one – but it seems, given all that has emerged about Rangers and their history in recent times, the arrangement is no longer palatable to a large section of the Celtic fanbase.

Celtic supporters have always had something of a superiority complex when it comes to their relationship with their counterparts across the city and it has only been exacerbated in the months since Rangers' decline.

The feeling that emerged yesterday, as one fan stood up to put forward his resolution detailing why the joint deal should be severed and was then followed by another who spoke of the need to put sporting integrity ahead of monetary concerns, was that the more idealistic among the Celtic support would like nothing more than to have Rangers removed from their lives altogether.

Both speeches drew resounding applause, although it was notable that, when the time came for a show of hands, there were still a significant number who felt it unwise to allow principles, no matter how noble, to dictate commercial strategy during testing economic times.

The Celtic board opposed the resolution, chairman Ian Bankier insisting that it was out of their hands if a sponsor elected to reach an agreement with another club, as unlikely as that seems.

In many ways the Celtic board are in a difficult position, reluctant to be seen to be going against the wishes of the supporters but also charged with pursuing all available revenue streams to allow the club and team to continue to flourish.

Bankier, who conceded he was not someone as comfortable in the public eye as his predecessor John Reid, was empathetic with the fans on the floor but would not be swayed by their stance.

"The terms upon which we enter any sponsorship [deal] are commercially confidential," he said. "And whether a sponsor also wishes to enter into a transaction with another commercial organisation or a football club is a matter for that sponsor and not within our control. Sponsorship income is a valuable source of revenue for the club which we put to good use in achieving our objectives. Our view is that this resolution is not in the best interests of the company or its shareholders."

Rangers' removal from the picture has now given Celtic a platform to go on and dominate the domestic landscape although they have not emerged entirely unscathed from the wreckage.

Chief executive Peter Lawwell admitted the club had suffered financial losses due to the removal of the Old Firm fixture from the calendar but insisted the need to be seen to do the right thing, when voting that newco Rangers should not be given entry to the SPL, outshone financial concerns.

"We stood up for what we believed was the right thing," he told shareholders in a video presentation at the start of the meeting.

"There is a short-term commercial issue and financially we will suffer. That is insignificant, however, compared to doing the right thing. There will be no Old Firm league games until Rangers are back in the SPL, but reaching the Champions League has more than made up for that loss."

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