It’s difficult for a Celtic fan to accept, and none of them will, but arguably it’s actually quite important for them, as well as Scottish football, that Motherwell win in today’s League Cup Final. Or at very least make a serious game of it.
There are various ways to express an uncomfortable moment of reality. Cold shower, wake-up call, epiphany, Minsky Moment. Use what you like, but this Wednesday was probably one of those, for Celtic and Scottish football.
A club doesn’t lose for nearly two years domestically, but suffers a modern day version of shootie-in when getting their passport stamped? Really?
Worse thing that could happen to the Scottish game is that Celtic do the same to Motherwell this afternoon.
It’s been a bad few days for Celtic. But one could argue, more so for Scottish football.
When your best playground hardman gets a proper doing at another school, it looks bad if he still remains utterly dominant back on the home patch. Looks very bad.
And Celtic got a proper doing in France.
From vloggers in Kiev, influencers in Miami, to sports papers in Milan, Celtic now pass off as some kind of sad whipping boy used by glamour top players to get their FIFA stats up. That’s so tragically wrong.
Historians love to put names on periods, eras, epochs.
We suggest that they will look back at this decade, and games like this, as The Brutal Polarisation. The definitive years where global brands like the Qatar Allstars (aka Paris St Germain), split completely from “proper” football played by clubs like Motherwell. And they will lament the fate of the greats clubs like Celtic left to drift somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
Until the very recent social media driven globalization, tradition had established a natural order in football, both domestically and in Europe. In this, from 1967, till about 1975, Celtic were undoubtedly in the top three clubs in Europe. The Force was in balance. Doha was a still watering hole in the desert.
Most see that as no more, although not for all.
Recently the Scottish football intelligentsia (oxymoron we know) has used compelling statistics, and a 65 game record-breaking unbeaten domestic run, to point to a serious progression of the Scottish champions. Nonsense comparisons with the side of Martin O’Neill in 2003, and absurdly the glory teams of the 60s/70s, have been made. Decent performances(sic), a loss and a draw, against Bayern Munich and Man City being hurled as evidence of serious intent, and health.
People actually bought this rubbish, in the groupspeak up there called “talking up the game”. Serious analysis was avoided. For example, 10 years ago, Celtic Park was indeed still pretty impregnable to even the best opponents. The Brutal Polarisation was still in its infancy. This illusion of competitiveness had persisted, until this week, with rational like “we can qualify from this group. We can beat anyone at home, and we’ll take a point in a Belgium”. This beauty was from some pundit on BBC Scotland in September.
Few had registered that in recent years Celtic lose very regularly at home, and often badly.
To be clear, Celtic is a good team, with an excellent coach, and the club runs like a Swiss watch. But everything is relative, except apparently to the football fan, and his goldfish bowl old sport’s media.
And then came Paris.
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a romantic tale about an aspiring and unfulfilled American author in love with a nostalgic idea of the past. Where, through the magic of hope and desire, he is magically transported back into the Paris of Hemingway, the FitzGeralds, Porter, Dali, and other world class artists, gravitating around a muse named Stein.
That was of course Gertrude, not Jock, but, as a perfect metaphor, it was what flashed front and center as the goals flew in, and Celtic suffered the humiliation of a 12-1 aggregate defeat to PSG.
“Oh what happened to you, whatever happened to me, what became of that people, we used to be!“ Forgive me, but those my age will smile.
Nostalgia like this is undoubtedly weak. It is a vice of the aged; a denial of the painful present. A pain inflicted by a dramatic unfairness of a huge club like Celtic being excluded from broadcast monies open to most clubs their size.
Just glance at the average attendances across Europe, and even today playing in Scotland, few can surpass the 60,000 at Celtic.
This apparently counts for nought in today’s football world order. Crazy.
Nostalgia is precisely a denial of reality. And that harsh fact is this:
Through absolutely no fault of their own, Celtic can now only conceptualise the Champions League for what it really is for them. A six-game shopwindow unique selling proposition in their player trading strategy, to convince a Dembele or a Roberts to put up with Scotland and the SPL. With the wonderful added bonus of 30 big ones from the Swiss ATM to keep the listed company annual report looking very healthy. That’s it folks.
Clubs like Celtic will likely never get to the last 16 ever again. The financial gap is now just too big. Maybe this week many fans finally heard that penny drop. A penny that should have dropped back around the turn of the century as The Brutal Polarisation began, with the UEFA sorting-hat condemning the game of football into the haves and have nots. Scottish football wasn’t going to be part of the former. Slytherin for us it was.
The even harsher bite of reality today is that the club will struggle in future to actually make the group stages, as qualification criteria have been very quietly changed yet again to favour the big leagues, with four guaranteed places. Peter Lawwell, the Celtic CEO, through his excellent influence at the ECA, has protected the Champions Route for now, but the writing is on the wall. No riff-raff need apply.
That will decimate player recruitment, and the financial performance. And it’s not so far away.
Maybe this kind of a Old Firm whinging is indeed just desserts for what somemsee as their perennial gloating domestically. Indeed, listening to the rival club twitterati fill their boots about the poetic justice and irony of financial resources distorting competition, you would think so.
It’s a complex comparison.
It is true that the financial disparity between Celtic and Motherwell is as wide as that seen on Wednesday night in Paris. It is true it isn’t a fair fight.
But, arguably it is not the same. Fanbase size doesn’t equate to sugar daddy petrodollar largesse. Scottish football has suffered from financial doping recently, and knows there is a natural balance that should be respected.
A balance where Celtic are bigger than their Lanarkshire rivals. Where PSG is not bigger than Celtic. Nor is Monaco.
Motherwell FC are to respected and cherished. As all such clubs should be.
They are the archetypal working class club from the archetypal working class region. Steel, heavy industry, mines. The factory of the Empire turning out salt of the earth men we all wanted to be. Real men. Men like Busby, Shankly and Jock Stein. The Steelmen.
Clubs like Motherwell would be, and deserve to be, much bigger clubs, if not for a rather unusual West of Scotland quirk. In that part of the world, the link to your religious heritage counts more than your postcode. Celtic and Rangers have always sucked busload of supporters out of places like Fir Park every weekend, and once you’ve been lifted over the turnstiles to smell the turf and hear the crowds at Ibrox and Parkhead, you are not going back.
In Glasgow parlance, Motherwell is a wee team; a diddy team. Desperately unfair, just like life, for they are instead a proper club, with proper fans. They have always lost their best players to clubs like Celtic and Liverpool, and will do again in the summer when Louis Moult leaves on a free. They will march on with local pride. But you can’t buck the market.
In 1998, a local businessman made good, John Boyle, came back to buy his club and try just that, hellbent on re-energizing his “home town”. He even had the Springsteen song as the anthem. He brought in quality people and players like Pat Nevin and John Spencer. He spent a fortune on the idea that he could reverse the direction of those supporters’ buses back from Glasgow.
He failed. He couldn’t buck the market. The club went bust and today is owned by its supporters. But it remains a proper club, perhaps even better, making the best of its lot with a smile. It’s young CEO Alan Burrows is a talent and an inspiration, and in that same destiny of things, like so many of his players, will be snatched away to bigger stages in short order. If I were Rangers, I’d be speaking to him now. They also have a superb modern content strategy led by one of the best media operators in the country Grant Russell (God knows how they tempted him away from that national broadcaster STV). They market their club beautifully.
For all that, Motherwell remains a wee team, the type of fodder Celtic have knocked over without a blip for nearly two years. That same result will be where the smart money is today.
For the reputation and momentum of Scottish football, it might be best if the smart money is wrong.