Graham Ruthven: Celtic need to forget 10 in-a-row and follow Ajax’s lead

Ajax sent shockwaves around Europe after battering Real Madrid in the Champions League and Graham Ruthven feels their model is one Celtic could follow…

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The ‘Galacticos’ were no match for Ajax’s new generation. Real Madrid have dominated an era of European football, winning four Champions League titles in five years, but the old guard was well and truly toppled on Tuesday night as the kids of the Dutch visitors ran amok at the Santiago Bernabeu.

As with every landmark moment of this kind, there will be countless views on how the Ajax model can be replicated. Of course, in most cases such duplication is completely unrealistic.

Ajax have been setting the standard in youth development and scouting for decades, going all the way back to the days of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s and Louis Van Gaal in the 1990s, and yet they still stand alone as Europe’s shrewdest footballing institution.

Nonetheless, Ajax’s incredible success in the latter rounds of this season’s Champions League sets a precedent and poses questions of similarly equipped clubs. Celtic are one such club, with Ajax’s annual revenue £10 million below that of the Scottish champions and their wage bill also £6 million lower.

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Of course, Celtic faced something of a crossroads in their recent history just last week when Brendan Rodgers left the club for Leicester City. Under Rodgers, the Hoops made significant progress, with the Northern Irishman imposing a more dynamic, technical style of play on a talented group of players.

However, while Rodgers led Celtic to the Champions League group stages in back-to-back seasons, he struggled to take them any further. The Bhoys suffered humiliating defeats to Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, with the Scottish champions frequently found out of their depth in Europe in recent years.

Rodgers’ exit presented Celtic with a chance to take the next step in their development, but the carrot of 10 league titles in-a-row meant no risks could be taken. Neil Lennon came in and is now expected to be given the job on a permanent basis at the end of the season.

He is, as many see it, a safe pair of hands, the man who started the 10 in-a-row run, and the man to finish it.

Contrast this to the way Ajax operate. Before this season, the Amsterdam club went four seasons without a league title, but there was an acceptance, both at boardroom level and in the stands, that they were building something bigger.

That something bigger has culminated in this season’s run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

This sort of pattern can be traced across Ajax’s recent history. The Amsterdam club enjoys spells of great success followed by fallow periods. Those fallow periods, though, are used to bed in the next generation, affording the sort of freedom that is uncommon at other elite clubs.

When the peaks come, Ajax tend to reach lofty heights, like the Europa League final three seasons ago or the run to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2003 when Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van Der Vaart, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Steven Pienaar were coming through.

The carrot of 10-in-a-row means Celtic can’t afford developmental years, not even one.

While the milestone would mark a historic moment in the club’s history, something to lord over a Rangers fanbase that still heralds their team’s nine-in-a-row achievement of the 1990s, the pursuit of it might well be holding Celtic back in a wider sense.

Celtic won’t ever be the Ajax of Scotland.

They won’t ever thump Real Madrid 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu. Replicating the success of the Dutch club would require a complete overhaul of the culture at Celtic Park.

What Ajax have has taken decades, generations even, to build. But, their astonishing win over Real Madrid raises questions over what Celtic, among other examples around Europe, are really chasing.

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