Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hayes deal demonstrates Celtic's financial dominance

Just over three weeks ago, Jonny Hayes was smashing a left foot volley into the back of the net to give Aberdeen the lead over Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final.

Twenty-one days later, Celtic signed winger Hayes from Aberdeen on a three-year deal for an undisclosed fee, reported to be around £1.3 million. The transfer sees Hayes, arguably the best player in Scotland outside of Celtic for the last two years, move from the team that finished 2nd in last season's Scottish Premiership and runners up in the League & Scottish Cups to the team that won all three domestic trophies.

The last time I could recall the reigning Scottish Champions buying a player directly from the league runners-up, at least in the immediate aftermath of the previous season, was when David Robertson moved to Rangers from Aberdeen for around £1 million in 1991. (Admittedly, the gap between 1st and 2nd place was much closer then – the Gers won a league deciding match against the Dons in the final game of the season at Ibrox – than the yawning chasm that separated the Celts from the Dons this season.)

In more recent times, following the 2005-06 season, Paul Hartley signed for reigning champions Celtic for over £1.1 million following "significant unrest in the Hearts dressing room" - the Jambos had been runners-up the previous season, although the transfer didn't occur until midway through the following season in January 2007. (Steven Pressley had also joined Celtic the previous December as a free agent, having already parted company with Hearts earlier that month as part of the fallout from the ultimately ill-fated Romanov administration; the other member of the "Riccarton Three", Craig Gordon, would also end up at Celtic, albeit by a far more circuitous route.)

In both of the previous examples, the reigning champions went on the retain their titles while the runners-up fell away from contention. Aberdeen finished sixth in the following 1991-92 season, costing manager Alex Smith his job as he became the first Aberdeen manager ever to be sacked. (Though he certainly wouldn't be the last.) Hearts finished 4th in the following 2007-08 season, although by that time the Romanovs had instigated umpteen managerial changes already regardless of how well the team were actually performing on the pitch.

Of course, it is hardly a prediction of Nostradamus that Celtic will likely retain the Scottish Premiership trophy in 2017-18. If anything, the current Aberdeen side can be distinguished from the previous examples cited above in that any remote hope they may have held of realistically challenging for the title had already passed them by in the previous couple of seasons, when they competed against a markedly inferior Celtic side under Ronny Deila. After Brendan Rodgers was appointed manager following Deila's exit, the improvement in the Celtic side was almost instantaneous. (I say 'almost'; for all of the domestic dominance that would follow, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltar's Lincoln Red Imps wasn't the most auspicious of starts...)

Consider, for example, that on 24 January 2017, Rodgers was already secure enough in his grasp of the title that he was willing to allow one of his own players, Ryan Christie, to join Aberdeen on loan until the end of the season. (Indeed, it was also confirmed this weekend that Ryan will be returning to Pittodrie on a season long deal.) Just a year earlier, on 24 January 2016, Ryan Christie was only one day removed from his Celtic debut, a 3-1 win at home to St Johnstone that restored a 6 point lead over Aberdeen, who had beaten Dundee the day before that. The idea of Celtic loaning Christie to Aberdeen at that time would have surely been unthinkable; today, it isn't even the biggest transfer story involving the two clubs this weekend.

The transfer of Hayes to Celtic simply widens the already yawning chasm which separates the league champions from its competition. This is already a Celtic team that landed the treble last season; of the 18 player matchday squad that completed that season with the 2-1 Scottish Cup Final victory at Hampden only Patrick Roberts, who was on loan from Manchester City, is not available to Rodgers for the coming season. It's not as if the existing group of players will be going anywhere else any time soon, either. The majority of the squad are on long term deals with the club, while Hayes (at 29 years old) will actually be one of the veterans; of the players involved in the Scottish Cup Final, only Scott Brown, Craig Gordon, Mikael Lustig & Dorus De Vries are older than Jonny.

 Indeed, such are the player resources available to Rodgers that he could put together a decent team from the remainder of the first team squad that weren't involved that day; for example, would a starting XI containing Christie, Scott Allan (loaned out to Dundee earlier this week), Kolo Toure, Emilio Izaguirre, Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven, Saidy Janko, Logan Bailly, Kristoffer Ajer, Liam Henderson & Eboue Kouassi still be favoured over any other team in the league? At worst, if Hayes comes in as a like-for-like replacement for Roberts and Celtic go again with the same squad they will be prohibitive favourites for the title for years to come.

 However, the club have made it clear that their priority going forward will be progress in the Champions League; with the qualifying draw on Monday, Rodgers will already be turning its attention to retooling his squad with this in mind. It was already the case, even before Rodgers arrived as manager, that Celtic enjoyed a spending advantage over the rest of the league that was almost laughable in its disparity. However, this is only going to get wider; Celtic's involvement in last season's Champions League group stages contributed to announced profits of around £20 million in the six months leading up to the end of last December. While it is true that, in real terms, other Scottish Premiership clubs may benefit by over £200,000 per club in solidarity payments from UEFA, in terms of league competition this is still resulting in a significant widening of the financial disparity between the clubs when Celtic are benefitting by a factor of about 100.

 Rodgers had already spent around £12.5 million in transfers last season to acquire the likes of Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembele and Christian Gamboa, plus Messrs De Vries, Toure & Kouassi. One suspects that the addition of Hayes is just the beginning of an even more significant spend in this summer's transfer window.

So while Celtic continue to chase the glamour and riches of Champions League qualification, what does this mean for our domestic football going forward. The reality is that Celtic no longer have any domestic rival – or, at least, any opponent that has a realistic chance of usurping them in the league – and while it is unrealistic to expect any team to win every domestic cup competition, given the vagaries of any given matchday, they will nonetheless be favoured for every trophy they compete for in Scotland for the foreseeable future. Brendan Rodgers has already extended his original contact with Celtic to 2021, which would be long enough for him to preside over the eventual accomplishment of 'Ten In A Row' that Hoops fans go on about ad infinitum. The reality, however, may prove to be that even that achievement may be selling the club short.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

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