Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Enjoy Champions League nights while they last

Tonight Celtic play their second Champions League Group Stage match, away to Anderlecht.  Given that their other group opponents are powerhouses Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain, the clashes against the Belgian champions may turn out to be little more than a two-legged tie for a Europa League spot next spring.

But that's okay for Celtic.  Because what mattered was getting to the Group Stages and getting their hands on that lovely £30million or so that comes with it.  Just look at their final results for the 2016-17 season, announced last week; Turnover rose impressively to £90m, and pre-tax profits were up to £6.9m.  Both of those increases can be put down to their return to the continental promised land, after two barren years under Ronny Deila.

But you can see that profits are rather dependent on that UEFA cash.  The club's accounts from this season and the last two years show that the club's business plan requires them to either reach the Champions League or sell a star player - Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk moved on for eight-figure fees after Deila's two European disasters - to avoid running at a loss.  And as I've commented on before, it's not a bad plan...providing Celtic make it to the Champions League on a fairly regular basis.  And given that there have never been more than two consecutive seasons without a Scottish club in the Group Stage, there's been little reason for concern there.

Until next season.

Because 2018-19 sees some big changes to the Champions League, big changes that could give Celtic a real problem.  Most Scottish football fans think having to get through three qualifying rounds is already grossly unfair; next season the Scottish champions - who will be Celtic, by the way - will have to play four rounds.  They will be amongst 44 domestic champions battling for just four places in the Group Stage.

For comparison, Celtic are one of five sides (Olympiakos, APOEL, Qarabag and Maribor are the others) to reach this year's Group Stage via the 'Champions route'.  Not only are there fewer places to play for, but the Dutch and Swiss champions - who qualified for the groups automatically this year - will drop into the qualifiers too.  So there are effectively only four places for these clubs, when there were effectively seven this season.

That is going to make it really, really difficult.  Whilst Celtic are hardly minnows in this pond, four matches gives lots of scope for bad luck and disaster.  And their club co-efficient score is high enough that they would be seeded throughout.  But imagine if you had seen off the likes of Astana (who they beat in the final qualifying round this year) or Maribor (who put them out at that stage two years ago) and there was an even harder game to come against the champions of Holland or Greece.

Success propagates success - the Champions League money helps Celtic attract better players and improve their squad, and year on year they should get just that little bit stronger and that little bit more competitive on the continental stage.  But failure propagates failure - no Champions League football means players leaving either for financial reasons or because they want to play at that higher level, and there is less money to replace them.  Celtic were dangerously close to being stuck in the lateral spiral during Deila's tenure, and in the next few years they could end up back in it through little fault of their own.

Plenty of fans of other clubs would no doubt rub their hands at the thought of such a prospect.  After all, if Celtic had to cut their cloth, then the gap between them and the rest of Scottish football would surely narrow?  And yes, that is true.  The idealists amongst us dream of a league sufficiently competitive that, for the first time in three decades, a non-Old Firm team could win it.  For my generation (I was born in 1984), Scotland's European successes are something our elders talk about.  Emulating them is not only pie in the sky, but it also feels completely unimportant.

The clubs themselves would be more wary.  After all, Celtic's qualification for the Champions League means 'solidarity payments' for the other Premiership clubs, to the tune of £365,000 this season.  For Motherwell, for example, that's an eighth of their annual turnover.  Of course it's buttons compared to what Celtic are getting, but other Scottish clubs operate in a different financial universe.  (For the record, Motherwell CEO Alan Burrows suggested that it might be up to 20% of some clubs' turnover, while for Aberdeen it is only about 3%).

So if Celtic - or, I am duty bound to say, no other Scottish club - can no longer reach the Champions League as often, then there may be a knock-on effect that means other clubs have to cut their cloth.  Given that there's no sign of any significant improvement in TV or sponsorship income on the horizon, that would be a major concern.

Maybe, just maybe, I am being too pessimistic (it has been known!) about Celtic's future success in Europe.  But given their excellent reputation for financial management, I would be amazed if their board hasn't already contemplated their future income streams, and trembled just a little.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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