A Celtic-supporting ex-footballer who spent his entire career in the English leagues tells a story about how he nearly signed for the Scottish club. He had verbally agreed a new contract with his then Premier League employers but, upon receiving an overture from his boyhood heroes, found himself sitting in front of Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell.
“I’ve agreed a deal, I wouldn’t feel right about going back on my word,” the player said.
“What will you be on?” Lawwell replied? The player told him. “Well we couldn’t pay you that,” Lawwell responded. “But, you know, you are a Celtic man, aren’t you?” Suddenly, something tantalising but intangible was on the negotiating table.
The player smiled and eventually politely declined, but out of a desire to honour his original agreement rather than a flat rejection of Celtic’s failure to offer the going rate.
It’s a tale that shows how the people who run Celtic have a firm grasp on the value of emotion. To them, it is not merely something to sing songs about and feel warm and fuzzy over, though some of them may do that on the club’s better days, when Rod Stewart is blubbering in the director’s box.
To them, emotion is part of their daily accounting. It is with any club, but especially so at Celtic when it holds its value relative to the rest of the football world far better than TV rights income or the quality of its playing squad or any of the tangible things that led Brendan Rodgers to walk out on them mid-season.
Celtic fans are outraged by the timing of Rodgers move to Leicester. Most accepted that Rodgers might seek pastures new in the summer after perhaps leading Celtic to a ‘treble-treble’, but some held out hope that he would stay for an unprecedented 10-in-a-row of league titles, a milestone in the Punch & Judy score-keeping of Glasgow’s football rivalry.
They thought this because Rodgers spoke of his childhood as a Celtic supporter growing up in Northern Ireland, how he was living out his dreams every day and how this was a special, special club. Rodgers fed them this stuff from the moment he arrived, and it pleased them, and their response pleased Rodgers in return. This was a circular loop of adoration, feeding egos on both sides: ‘I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family’.
Celtic fans are outraged because it seems like Rodgers’ side of the virtuous circle was about as genuine as the manager’s teeth. He left with Celtic in a title race and in the week of a cup quarter-final, gutted the backroom staff and did it all with indecent and scarcely believable haste. And for Leicester City. Celtic used to take managers from them!
So what. It’s the age-old tale. Boy meets football club, boy leaves football club, football club calls boy ‘Judas b**tard’. It’s just business. Leicester City were the 22nd richest club in the world last year according to the only league table that matters these days – the Deloitte Football Money League – and the lure of the Premier League is impossible for almost any football professional to resist. Rodgers had reached his ceiling in Glasgow, as the sour mood of last summer’s transfer window suggested.
Also, the crueller observers point out, you believed a man who has a giant portrait of himself in his house?
Some Celtic fans felt wounded on Tuesday because they bought Rodgers’ line that he was one of them, and as such, would never do anything to hurt the club. The truth was that a kernel of affection for Celtic was always going to be subservient to his football ambitions.
If fans failed to grasp this, you can be sure Rodgers’ bosses understood it. The man who makes the decisions at Celtic, majority shareholder Dermot Desmond, knows the value of most things. His own emotional connection to Celtic might explain his initial investment in the club, but everything since suggests cold-eyed rationalism akin to what Rodgers displayed this week.
Desmond runs Celtic like a hedge-fund, making decisions for their ability to boost the value of his asset rather than the activity of Rod Stewart’s tear ducts. This approach has kept Celtic stable when notable others have self-destructed but means they can never compete at the level they once did.
Desmond would have had a more accurate grasp on Rodgers’ long-term commitment to the club than the manager’s messianic introductory press conference in 2016 suggested. He backed Rodgers to a point – Celtic’s wage bill doubled and they broke an 18-year-old transfer record last summer – but knew full well that England’s streets are too paved with gold for Celtic to ever buy a manager’s enduring loyalty.
When Rodgers’ eye began to wander – links to Arsenal, an offer from China and the eventually consummated flirtation with Leicester – Desmond said Celtic would not stand in his way. And so, when this week’s events played out, shocking fans and media observers, Celtic’s reaction was surprisingly mellow. Permission granted, affectionate press release put out, compensation banked, replacement appointed.
Rodgers had achieved stunning domestic dominance, failed to make a mark in Europe and had been working his ticket down south while continuing to butter up the fans. Thank you, next.
Rodgers has the excitement of the Premier League to distract him but if he does have a moment of self-reflection (Hello? Giant portrait of self in house?) he will acknowledge that he has torched his legacy at Celtic in the eyes of many fans. His interim replacement will not be trying to con anyone. Neil Lennon loves the club but he left Celtic in 2015 because they kept selling his best players. He’s back because he is a popular and beloved figure, but also because he is now an out-of-work manager and both he and Celtic need each other again.
In a week when there was plenty of it, more evidence that the value of ambition is always greater than that of emotion, in the sport.