As the final whistle went on our 2018/19 European hopes and dreams for another season, the Celtic support based high in the steep stands of the Mestalla, and dotted all around the ground, stood to applaud the players’ effort.
Not one of them had left anything in the dressing room. Some had better nights than others but that’s the nature of a team game. It wasn’t a night to doubt effort and commitment but a night to be impressed by the heart and soul of the side.
The job we had to do that night, following a 2-0 defeat in the home leg, was as steep as the Mestalla stands. A price paid after a poor first leg where, once again, we failed to perform on the night. There was a similar feeling after AEK Athens eliminated us from the Champions League earlier that season. These were two sides who I felt were beatable with the squad we had.
Brendan checks out
For the second successive season, we were knocked out at the last 32 stage of the Europa League. It felt at that point that the climb to the next level in Europe was as tough as the climb to an away end on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
Brendan Rodgers thought so too. Under a week later, he was in the directors’ box at the King Power Stadium. If he felt that he had taken us as far as he could, then he had a point. Our model had reached a ceiling, which saw our wage outlay at historic levels and dependent on Champions League income. We were struggling to sufficiently plan for qualification into the promised land of that elite tournament, and perhaps Rodgers could see no real intention by the board to alleviate that position.
For the tie against Valencia, we were missing players that had heavily contributed to our successes under Rodgers. Leigh Griffiths, Kieran Tierney, Tom Rogic and Olivier Ntcham were all unavailable for selection. Also unavailable was Filip Benkovic, a player who looked as though he was going to become our record signing until an injury in December put paid to his Celtic career.
There is no argument that the recruitment department had a bad summer, which got worse as we had a Moussa Dembele-sized hole by the end of August. A hole that couldn’t be filled by a tar squad doing a homer. A hole that needed serious money to fill it.
Imagine we had made Paddy Roberts’ stay permanent, then signed Filip Benkovic and Jeremy Toljan in time for the qualifier against AEK Athens? Would that have been a sign of massive European ambition on the back of spending a club record £9m on Odsonne Edouard?
The cost of assembling that squad would have been astronomical for a club like Celtic – Benkovic and Toljan would have cost north of £15m to sign them both permanently; Roberts would have set us back between £5m to £10m at that time; and that would have been on top of the money already spent on Edouard. The bounties recouped from the sales of Stuart Armstrong and Dembele would have all but covered this massive outlay, but there was no way the Celtic board were ever going to shell out £30m in one transfer window.
However, that was what we needed to do at that point if we wanted to stand a chance of European progression. Instead, the board retreated, we got knocked out, then Brendan left the building.
AEK Athens (with a certain Vasilis Barkas in tow) progressed to a group containing Ajax, Bayern Munich and Benfica. They gathered zero points, as Ajax progressed to the semi-final, and Bayern Munich were dispatched by eventual winners, Liverpool, in the Round of 16.
I’m fairly confident that a Celtic bolstered by the aforementioned £30 million of talent would have comfortably progressed into Group E in place of AEK Athens. If they had, and picked up the £12.7 million prize money for doing so, could they seriously have lived with those other three teams?
The group winners, Bayern Munich, earned an additional £11 million for their four group wins and two draws, before being paid £10.8 million for reaching the last 16.
The financial risk faced by Celtic back then was to shell out nearly £30 million, with just £12.7 million prize money (plus ticketing and broadcasting revenue) guaranteed for getting to the Champions League groups. As fans, we sometimes want the club to go gung-ho and throw money at achieving this thing we call ‘European progress’, but the Celtic board have never been that cavalier when outside of that familiar domestic bubble.
Top sides in Europe can have an off-night and still remain in ties. Having a middling performance doesn’t see the collapse of their dreams. If you look at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp you see steady progress. In the beginning they had to play ‘heavy metal’ football and tackle games like a runaway roller-coaster to win. There was no middle ground.
They steadily improved the base talent level of the squad. They play in a competitive, attractive league and have invested heavily in elite level players.
Our base level talent needs to give us eight or nine out of ten performances for us to get a result. Jonny Hayes against Valencia had the game of his life. It is unimaginable that he could produce that level of performance against that level of opposition every time.
Callum McGregor and Scott Brown had off nights in the first-leg game at Celtic Park, unlike the previous season against Zenit when both were outstanding and the scoreline didn’t reflect our performance.
Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan got regular performances at home. Their squads compared to Rodgers’ showed superior level of base talent available, but the same failings on our travels. As the quality of the squad decreased, our expectations should have as well.
When you look at the squads for both ties against AEK Athens and Valencia, it’s difficult to argue that Celtic weren’t good enough to overcome them both.
Having Dedryck Boyata and Moussa Dembele available against Athens would have made a huge difference. Dembele spooked the untroubled Athens rearguard when he came on in the second leg. Having Tierney and Benkovic would have strengthened our defence and Tom Rogic would have given us a more creative option against Valencia.
Our chances would have improved if we had all these missing players, but we would still need to have been at our very best. Our base talent pool wasn’t good enough for an off-night, even though it had been expensively assembled.
Four years on and much has changed within that Celtic squad. Indeed, only Scott Bain, Anthony Ralston, Callum McGregor, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston remain. Rodgers took a Celtic sabbatical and returned with some more European experience in the shape of a run to the Conference League semi-final, but the Champions League is an entirely different beast.
Rodgers’ final season was one of regret. Let’s hope, by the time we line up in our first Champions League fixture in September, we are not regretting a transfer window that leaves us short on quality.