STEPHEN MCGOWAN: Celtic had the chance to build a modern empire but are left with a smoking gun

On the rare occasions when Celtic chief executive Dom McKay puts his head above the public parapet, he returns to the same word time and again. Modernisation.

It’s not hard to see why. The Parkhead club have become the footballing equivalent of Kodak or Polaroid. An analogue operation sliding backwards, toiling to keep pace in the digital age.

They have failed to qualify for Europe’s premier competition in each of the past four seasons, losing to opponents with smaller wage bills. Handed the job of reversing years of managed decline and complacency, McKay is now playing catch-up on Rangers and the rest of Europe.

Celtic have now failed to qualify for the Champions League in the past four seasons

Celtic have always enjoyed painting themselves as a Champions League club in stature. But that’s a billing they can only really justify when they play there from time to time and, since a 1-0 defeat to Anderlecht in December 2017, they haven’t come close.

After defeats to AEK Athens, FC Cluj and Ferencvaros, Wednesday’s extra-time knock-out punch from FC Midtjylland confirmed their status as Euro also-rans.

Manager Ange Postecoglou, plucked from Yokohama F Marinos at short notice, can’t be held responsible for the latest collapse. The Australian might accept the responsibility for failing to outline the urgency of the situation to directors. Yet he knows, as everyone does, where the real blame for Celtic’s collapse as a competitive force in Europe lies.

For most of the past decade, this was a club with every advantage at their disposal. Lording it over Scottish football, winning one Treble after another, there was an opportunity to build a forward-thinking European powerhouse from a position of strength.

New manager Ange Postecoglou should not be blamed for Celtic's latest failure in Europe

New manager Ange Postecoglou should not be blamed for Celtic’s latest failure in Europe

So long as the domestic trophies and the Champions League money kept rolling in and the Invincibles DVDs flew off the shelves, however, Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell saw no need to invest in a director of football or the latest data and analytics. They would worry about all that after ‘the ten’.

It was more fun to peer into a set of binoculars and mock the idea of Rangers coming over the hill than it was to raise the goggles a little higher and study the bigger picture.

Clubs like Barnsley, Brentford and Midtjylland have offset their lack of turnover and broadcasting millions by revamping their operations and gaining an extra edge via recruitment, data and analysis. The opportunity was there for Celtic to do the same while Rangers were embarking on their torturous journey through the lower leagues and relying on shareholder loans to keep the lights on.

They had the breathing space and money to focus on becoming a serious player in Europe. They could have gone for a proper, qualified director of football with a contacts book which stretched further than D for Dudu and a vision for how the club should operate.

They could have instituted a proper, boots on the ground, scouting operation in South America and the Far East and the Americas. They could have spent all that money gathering interest in the bank on the latest scouting techniques, data and analysis. They could have built a club so modern that Dom McKay could have taken over and run the place from his front room.

When Brendan Rodgers left for Leicester City, frustrated by a perceived lack of ambition, they could have heeded the warnings. Instead, they cut costs, brought back Neil Lennon and went back to doing things the way they always had before. Football, meanwhile, was modernising and changing and passing them by.

Cheif executive Dom McKay is now playing catch-up on Rangers and the rest of Europe after years of managed decline and complacency

Cheif executive Dom McKay is now playing catch-up on Rangers and the rest of Europe after years of managed decline and complacency

Celtic did modernise to a degree. When Rodgers qualified for the Champions League twice in a row, they spent £5million of the cash on stadium improvements, installing a new set of disco lights to enhance the Parkhead experience when Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain came to town.

Since then, they’ve lost one qualifier after another. If the elite clubs of Europe visit Glasgow this season, they’ll be heading for the bright lights of Ibrox and steering clear of Parkhead.

For journalists, these inquests are becoming an annual exercise. Press Shift F7 and the familiar failings which undermine Celtic’s qualification effort year after year pop up on the screen instantly.

Failure to bring new players in soon enough is a running theme. A bitter refrain of supporters disenfranchised by the men running the club.

A week before losing to AEK Athens in 2017, Rodgers expressed veiled discontent with Lawwell’s failure to close a deal for John McGinn of Hibs.

Far from learning from that episode, Celtic’s hierarchy continued to hesitate over new signings and finished up fielding second, third or fourth-choice options in key positions for vital qualifiers.

Postecoglou had a threadbare squad to choose from for both the first and second legs

Postecoglou had a threadbare squad to choose from for both the first and second legs

While they can’t be blamed for Covid restrictions, it’s legitimate to ask if they might have been better prepared for Denmark if they’d bought players from the British market instead of quarantining Carl Starfelt and Kyogo Furuhashi.

A defence of Scott Bain, Anthony Ralston, Stephen Welsh, Dane Murray and Greg Taylor might pass muster in a testimonial for an ageing defender at Carlisle United. When it comes to confronting the continental elite, it falls short of the standard required.

Gripes over how long it took Postecoglou to make changes in an extra-time defeat to Midtjylland ignore an inconvenient truth. With two goalkeepers and Boli Bolingoli on the bench, his options were woeful.

Seven months since Jeremie Frimpong left for Bayer Leverkusen, the failure to sign another right-back is inexplicable. A player who looks more and more disinterested with every outing, the fact Odsonne Edouard remains Postecoglou’s only decent striker is a damning state of affairs.

Failure to spend money well is a bigger problem than a perceived reluctance to spend it at all.

Burdened by a wage bill of £53m — the biggest in Scotland by some distance — roughly £40m of that cash is spent on first-team salaries. Yet, against Midtjylland, the wages of the starting XI came to no more than £5m.

Celtic's domination over Scottish football is over after Rangers' title win last season

Celtic’s domination over Scottish football is over after Rangers’ title win last season

When a club heads into one of the biggest games of the season utilising just 12.5 per cent of their resources, questions have to be asked over the cash being squandered. From top to bottom, the people in control at Celtic are haemorrhaging money, talent, goodwill and confidence.

Failing to sign Fraser Forster, letting Craig Gordon leave, hanging on to unhappy players in pursuit of ‘the ten’, Bolingoli, the Dubai fiasco and Desmond’s initial refusal to end the tenure of Lennon; these all suggest that mis-steps at managerial level have become a damaging pattern. And the chickens have come home to roost.

It’s now three years since former Rangers chairman Dave King warned that one title for Steven Gerrard would see Celtic’s domination of Scottish football collapse ‘like a pack of cards’. If they laughed then, they’re not laughing now.

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