Celtic’s rebuild analysed

Incoming chief executive Dominic McKay will join Celtic early with the club beginning a massive rebuild on multiple fronts. Having surrendered the league title in meek fashion to Rangers, many key figures from a glorious decade for Celtic are departing – or have already left.

The pressure will be on to lay the foundations for immediate success – but beyond simply winning, what needs to be done at Celtic in the coming weeks to re-establish their position at the top of Scottish football?

Football department shake-up

McKay’s decision to join the club almost three months early emphasises the desire from Celtic to get their house in order as soon as possible. Initially, McKay was not due to arrive until the start of July, shortly before Celtic’s new season begins with the Champions League qualifiers, which have become more hazardous with every passing year.

McKay has already been involved in the decision-making process around the expected appointment of Eddie Howe, dispelling to an extent the notion among the support that the club has been treading water.

(PA) Eddie Howe 2:23
Simon Francis, who played under Eddie Howe, reveals what the former Bournemouth boss could bring to Celtic

A new manager, however, is just one strand of a complete overhaul within the football department, which is now beginning to crystallize. Neil Lennon’s exit in February was followed by that of head of football operations Nick Hammond in March, the man responsible for much of the recruitment over the last two seasons.

There is an expectation that the position of sporting director will be created, a role akin to that filled by Ross Wilson at Rangers. Howe is keen to work once more with his Bournemouth technical director Richard Hughes, the former Scotland midfielder, but Celtic’s board are understood to be intent on appointing their own figurehead within the framework of the football department. Manchester City’s head of football partnerships, Fergal Harkin, has been heavily linked with the role, but thus far nothing has been agreed.

There is an element of caution in this move from Celtic, perhaps understandably; if indeed he is the man but one day, Howe returns to English football, the club do not want to be caught in a similar situation to when Brendan Rodgers suddenly left for Leicester City, taking most of his entire coaching staff and his recruitment guru Lee Congerton with him. As much as it might be Howe’s show, a sense of continuity – or control, depending on one’s viewpoint – is likely to be retained by the club.

The biggest test yet of Celtic’s recruitment team

Celtic are set to host newly-crowned Scottish Premiership champions Rangers on Sunday - live on Sky Sports 0:33
Paul John Dykes from ‘A Celtic State of Mind’ podcast says the fans will demand Celtic regain the title next season despite a huge rebuild on and off the pitch

Whoever takes charge of recruitment must improve Celtic’s decidedly mixed recent record in the transfer market.

While Jeremie Frimpong was bought for just £300,000 from Man City and then sold to Bayer Leverkusen for more than £10m, more expensive arrivals such as Patryk Klimala and Albian Ajeti have largely disappointed. The ability to scout the lower leagues in England and foreign markets for undiscovered bargains, a once fruitful policy, now faces its biggest test yet.

Question marks also surround interim manager John Kennedy. The former centre-half, whose career was cut short by injury, has long been admired within the club and touted as a potential Celtic boss. He is unquestionably associated with this season’s failings, but could stay on as part of the new coaching setup – though he recently admitted being in temporary charge has whetted his own appetite to be a manager in his own right.

30/07/16 PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY.NK CELJE v CELTIC (2-2).ARENA PETROL STADIUM - SLOVENIA.John Kennedy and Brendan Rodgers 1:35
Former Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers explains why it is important for the club to keep John Kennedy at Parkhead

In the event Howe is appointed, his long-time Bournemouth assistant Jason Tindall has recently joined Sheffield United which may rule him out, as would the need for knowledge of Scottish football. That could open the door for Peter Grant to return to Celtic once more. An iconic figure as a player, Grant played with and coached Howe at Bournemouth, and could indoctrinate him easily into the peculiarities of Scottish football’s madhouse.

Another ex-Celtic player who could lend Howe his ear is Mark Burchill, currently a Bournemouth scout.

A radical overhaul of the playing squad?

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MARCH 21: Celtic captain Scott Brown shows his frustration during the Scottish Premiership match between Celtic and Rangers at Celtic Park, on March 21, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Image: Celtic captain Scott Brown is leaving the club for Aberdeen

Celtic’s squad badly needs an injection of fresh capital and personnel, with some already heading out the door and others clearly keen to leave. The announcement last month that Scott Brown would be joining Aberdeen as a player-coach leaves a massive leadership gap that will probably never be filled. For all his advancing years and gradual decline, Brown’s influence in the Celtic dressing room and on the pitch has been immeasurable.

Frimpong and Olivier Ntcham departed in the January window (though Ntcham could be back in the summer), and Odsonne Edouard and Kristoffer Ajer may be the next to go this summer, if the price is right for Celtic to cash in. Ryan Christie’s contract is running down with no sign he will extend it, and Callum McGregor is near the peak of his powers with suitors in England circling. Far from a gradual transition, the squad that won an “invincible” treble for Rodgers in 2016-2017 could soon be completely dismantled.

Celtic have three goalkeepers who have failed to shine, including one – Vasilis Barkas – who is threatening to be an expensive flop. The defence, suspect all season, requires a total rebuild. Ajer is itching to move on, Christopher Jullien is recovering from serious injury and three loanees (Shane Duffy, Diego Laxalt and Jonjoe Kenny) will depart. Greg Taylor could be a long-term answer at left-back but at least four additions are required to establish some stability. Celtic have already been linked with Howe’s long-time Bournemouth captain Simon Cook, who is out of contract this summer.

Options are stronger in the centre of midfield, where Ismaila Soro and David Turnbull have formed a positive young heartbeat for the future. McGregor’s future is uncertain: if he stays and inherits the captaincy from Brown, he could lead Celtic for the rest of his career, but the feeling persists he is ready to test himself at a higher level.

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David Turnbull has impressed for Celtic and scored some vital goals

Nir Bitton and Tom Rogic both seem ready for a fresh start elsewhere, while reinforcements are required in the wide areas; loanee Mohamed Elyounoussi may not return, Mikey Johnston is yet to make a major breakthrough and James Forrest has only recently recovered from serious injury.

In attack, Ajeti and Klimala need to prove quickly they can be reliable replacements for Edouard – otherwise major turnover will take place here as well. And what of Leigh Griffiths? A consistent goalscorer when sharp, he has been unable to reach full fitness since the start of the pandemic, and with only one year left on his contract, will he be required by the new regime?

Refocusing on Europe

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 26: Ferencvaros' Tokmac Chol Nguen (R) makes it 2-1 during the Champions League Second Round qualifying match between Celtic and Ferencvaros at Celtic Park on August 26, 2020, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Image: Ferencvaros were one of the clubs to stun Celtic in the early qualifying rounds for the Champions League

Celtic’s fixation on achieving “10 in a row” has been to the detriment of the club’s European ambitions. In 13 seasons under O’Neill, Gordon Strachan and during Lennon’s first spell as manager, Celtic reached the Champions League group stages on eight occasions – and three times they progressed to the knockout stages. Since 2014, they’ve mixed with the elite of Europe just twice – under Rodgers – and failed to qualify both times.

Regression in Europe was perhaps inevitable due to the widening financial gulf between Celtic and Europe’s top clubs; the days of Barcelona and Manchester United being toppled in the group stages are now consigned to history. That does not excuse Celtic from failing to beat teams with smaller budgets; Malmo, Maribor, AEK Athens, Cluj and Ferencvaros have all claimed the Scottish champions’ scalp in qualifying in recent times.

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Former midfielder Paul Lambert warns the new manager will need to win regardless of opposition when they take over at Celtic

Celtic Park’s reputation as a European fortress is now a distant memory. The club have suffered some embarrassing recent defeats at home, the nadir being a 4-1 reversal to Sparta Prague in this season’s Europa League. While there have been some memorable European results, such as the 2019 double against Lazio, it has been a steady decline. Celtic’s inability to invest in the squad at the right time to enable Champions’ League group stage participation has become a recurring fault.

Even more galling is the impressive record in continental competition established across the city by Steven Gerrard. In three seasons of Europa League competition, Rangers have won or drawn every of their qualifying matches, and lost just six European games in total, making the knockout stages in each of the last two seasons. Howe has never managed in Europe – but if he gets the job his first competitive games as Celtic manager will be crucial European qualifiers.

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Former Rangers owner Dave King revealed to Sky Sports News he wants Celtic to improve and challenge the Ibrox side as it will help Scotland’s coefficient in Europe

Scotland’s co-efficient has skyrocketed since Gerrard’s arrival, so much so that for the first time in more than a decade the top two in Scottish Premiership will both participate in next season’s Champions League qualifiers. Yet the biggest prize of all lies ahead – Scotland’s champions in 2021-2022 are almost certain to qualify direct for the group stages, and inherit a financial jackpot.

Celtic are fortunate to have this opportunity in front of them, ironically created by Rangers’ improvements, but with Gerrard’s side now at full speed, the stakes could not be higher for the new man coming in.

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