Celtic were so confident they would make the group stage of the Champions League – as they had done the previous two seasons – that they spent millions on a new light show this summer to make the spectacle of European nights in Glasgow’s east end that bit more spectacular. The club will argue this was part of a wider £4 million renovation of Celtic Park, that the investment will have a benefit in the long term.
To others, though, this was a sign of their complacency in making it to the Champions League.
That £4 million could have been used to ensure the Hoops didn’t fall at the earliest stage of Champions League qualification for six years. It could have been spent on a defence that, more than Celtic Park, is in desperate need of renovation and has been for years. It could have been spent on a central midfielder to help out the ageing Scott Brown in front of the back four. It could even have been used to sign a new goalkeeper, with Craig Gordon never quite totally comfortable as Brendan Rodgers’ number one.
Instead, the Celtic board decided to go with what they had and now face a season locked out of the Champions League, knocked out in the third round of qualification by AEK Athens.
For a club defined by their European exploits, this is a disaster. Ronny Deila lost his job because of his failure to lead Celtic into European football’s premier club competition. The Norwegian won back-to-back league titles during his time in Glasgow, but was hounded out of Celtic Park purely on the basis of his continental record. Rodgers will face a similar, if not so fierce, inquest.
Rodgers saw this coming, though. His frustration had been building over the summer, as was evident in the week preceding Tuesday night’s defeat in Greece. The Northern Irishman called out a lack of investment in his squad, even raising the possibility that he could leave Celtic should he feel his ambition is not matched at boardroom level.
Of course, there’s no real immediate prospect of Rodgers leaving Celtic. While the former Liverpool and Swansea boss is undoubtedly frustrated with what has happened this summer, he has too much respect for the club to leave them so desperately in the lurch at this stage of the season. But if the relationship between Rodgers and the board has fractured, as appears to be the case, that could ultimately lead to the departure of the Northern Irishman, whether it’s at the end of the season or the end of his contract in three years.
Peter Lawwell and the Celtic board will bear the brunt of the fury sure to come their way in the coming days, and rightly so. But this doesn’t mean Rodgers should be exempt from all criticism. He too has made mistakes. His remarks over a lack of backing ring true to a certain extent, but he was still handed £9 million to sign Odsonne Edouard this summer. Given the glaring deficiencies in his squad, was another striker, on top of Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths, really a priority?
Last summer, Rodgers paid £500,000 just to loan Patrick Roberts from Manchester City and around £4 million to loan Charly Musonda from Chelsea. Both players failed to make an impression, with Musonda returning to his parent club a full 12 months early. Was this really such a wise investment when, even at that stage, defensive reinforcements were required?
£2 million was also spent on the signing of Jack Hendry and Marvin Compper in January, with one seemingly out of his depth at Celtic and the other so injury prone he has only made one appearance in eight months. Rodgers has more control over transfers than any of his Celtic predecessors since Martin O’Neill, so while he received credit for the signing of players like Dembele and Scott Sinclair, he must also take criticism over some of the more recent deals done.
Nonetheless, the fact Celtic showed such complacency at a time when the number of Champions League qualification rounds faced by the Scottish champions was raised from three to four is downright neglectful. Rodgers, who is not blame free, was the only one who demonstrated any sort of anticipation over the situation they might face.
For all the success enjoyed by the Hoops over the past two seasons, there had long been signs that this was on the horizon.