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'We can't compete with English sides,' say Celtic. Then why not sign Scottish?

CELTIC came in for criticism for not suitably upgrading their squad ahead of the Champions League qualifiers.

Stevie May, despite proving himself in the top flight, was not on Celtic's radar. Picture: SNS
Stevie May, despite proving himself in the top flight, was not on Celtic's radar. Picture: SNS

Manager Ronny Deila announced his wish to be given sufficient time to construct a team for the long-term. Stevie May was sold by St Johnstone to Sheffield Wednesday for a fee in the region of £800,000. You don't need to be Columbo to detect a link between three of the biggest Scottish sporting stories of the past week.

Celtic have been handed a European reprieve following Legia Warsaw's costly clerical error, earning the opportunity to "do over" as the Americans like to say. Whether they make the most of the second chance remains to be seen.

Not strengthening a squad that only reached the group phase of the Champions League last year by the skin of their teeth - then won only one game when they got there - was always taking a huge risk. That gamble seemed to have backfired when Celtic were comprehensively defeated over two legs by Legia only for good fortune to belatedly go in their favour. Celtic surely won't make the same mistake again.

Deila wants to rebuild, that much is clear. He has distanced himself from the suggestion that he wants to have a complete clear-out at Celtic but there is little doubt that he feels improvement and investment in the team is needed. There are short-term targets, of course, and returning to the group phase of the Champions League will now be expected after Celtic were paired with Maribor in the play-off round. It has also become apparent, however, that he is not a manager who will sign players simply for the sake of it.

He is wedded to a philosophy and will bring in those he feels will fit into that style. He also stressed a preference to sign younger players who can help form a team that can prevail for years to come.

This is where May comes in. The striker is still just 21 years old but has already shown that he is destined for a long, fruitful career.

It seems surprising, then, that he was not on Celtic's radar prior to this departure. At his media conference on Friday, Deila revealed that Celtic could no longer compete with English Championship clubs when it came to paying wages.

That may be true with regards to players already operating at that level but, for Scottish prospects at smaller clubs looking for a big move, then a club with repeated exposure to the Champions League and a chance of regular silverware is always likely to be more enticing than any lower-league English side, assuming wage offers from both are in the same ballpark.

Deila wants young, mobile players who can remain part of his plans for many years to come. His chief executive has in recent years embraced a transfer strategy that revolves around signing, for relatively small fees, players with a sell-on value.

If the club saw merit in paying £1.5m for Amido Balde and around £2.5m for Teemu Pukki, then it surely stands to reason that shelling out £800,000 on a forward with a proven pedigree in the Scottish top flight would have made both football and commercial sense.

And yet May has been allowed to traverse the border with Celtic barely raising their heads. The striker might not have been immediately ready for Champions League football but, given time, could well have proved to have been a shrewd investment. Should Celtic end up belatedly moving for him in a year or so, they can expect both his transfer fee and wage demands to have spiralled through the roof.

It is not the first time Celtic, the only Scottish club currently in a position to compete financially with second-tier sides in England, have allowed promising local talent to head elsewhere. They were repeatedly credited with an interest in James McCarthy before he signed for Wigan Athletic, while a year later his near namesake James McArthur was also allowed to move on to the same destination. Johnny Russell, a Celtic fan, left Dundee United last summer for Derby County for around £750,000, while this summer both Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson have moved on from Tannadice to Sporting and Hull City respectively. They almost certainly could have signed both for a fraction of the cost had they made a move when it first became apparent that both were special talents.

Admittedly, May and the rest may not flourish as expected and could go on to have underwhelming careers. But in an era when Celtic have repeatedly shown a willingness to spend more money on foreign players who have largely failed to impress, signing the best of Scottish still seems a cost-effective strategy worth pursuing.

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