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Kevin McKenna: ‘Domestic capitalists Celtic must realise place in world’


Brendan Rodgers
Brendan Rodgers

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the father of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S Thompson, chronicled his drug-addled, two-day road trip. “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride . . . and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well . . . maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: tune in, freak out, get beaten.”

But who needs acid when you can step into the febrile world of professional football?

Indeed, Thompson could have been describing the supporters’ experience of following their club. And few other clubs scramble the senses of supporters and stir their imaginations more than Celtic. Even when hard reason tells us we are about to be emotionally fleeced, we run towards them. When we know we are being conned once more, we reach for the language of religious faith to reassure ourselves. All will be well because we are an anointed people on a sacred journey.

Brendan Rodgers was appointed the new manager of Leicester City on Monday night after a 32-month period at Celtic where he won every domestic trophy available – seven in all – and broke records that had stood for many decades. In this time, he was venerated by Celtic supporters, who believed he would remain in Glasgow to lead them to the mythical 10 league titles in succession. He departed on the cusp of eight. If he had been watching Celtic’s game against Hearts on Wednesday, he would have known how quickly saviours become demons in Glasgow. A banner held by Celtic supporters revealed what they thought of him now: “You traded immortality for mediocrity. Never a Celt, always a fraud.”

Rodgers’ crime in their eyes wasn’t that he had ditched Celtic for Leicester but that he did so with 13 games and two trophies remaining. Rodgers had convinced them that he was one of them (apart from the expensive dental work and the year-long tan) and that, in his own words, he was “born into Celtic”. Leicester fans might want to inspect more closely any claims that Rodgers’ childhood ambitions were inspired by mighty Keith Weller and pin-up boy Alan Birchenall.

Celtic’s identity has been forged in the hard, working-class politics of the west of Scotland and the struggle of the Irish first to belong and then to succeed. Fundraising events for food banks have been a regular feature of the Celtic matchday experience for years and they regularly incur the wrath of football’s governing body for overt displays of support for the Palestinian cause.

Yet their heroes are all millionaires, playing in one of the grand cathedrals of European football with a new £2m light system to heighten our already giddy senses. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove wouldn’t look out of place on the board of directors, which had to be publicly embarrassed into paying the lowest-paid workers at Celtic Park a proper living wage. Celtic proclaim they are “more than just a club”, meaning they are beholden to a higher set of social values.

But last week we were mugged by pure, ravenous capitalism in its most malign form. Nor should any of us have been surprised, because in the operation of professional football at its highest level can be witnessed the triumph of the aggressive free market.

At no other period in history would the manager of Celtic, the first British club to lift the European Cup and with a massive global fan base, be tempted to swap this for Leicester, a decent little club that have managed to muddle along for most of their 135-year history, aspiring to little more than mediocrity. Their fairytale league title win of 2016 has given them ideas above their status, as the swift firing of three managers in succession has shown.

In the English Premier League, pure capitalism has permitted the moderate and the second rate to imagine themselves as masters. Virtually every club in the English Premier League, courtesy of television rights, gains automatic entry on to the list of the world’s most affluent. The next television deal will see Sky and BT pay almost £4.5bn (€5.2bn) for 160 games a season until 2022. In Scotland, Sky is reported to have agreed to pay £30m (€35m) per season from 2020.

The movement of money, and its chosen destinations across Europe, has virtually killed European competition at the highest level. Only once since 1996 has a club from outside Spain, Italy, Germany or England lifted the European Cup. There are few surprises.

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Celtic can hardly complain. They remain a well-run club that have honed their own trading technique to perfection. They scour Europe for promising young players who may have slipped beneath the sensors of international football agents and rear Scotland’s finest young prospects from their academy before selling them on for vast profits. The financial apocalypse that overwhelmed their great city rivals Rangers is still being felt, leaving Celtic with no sustainable challenge to their long-term ascendancy in Scotland.

Celtic have also benefited from the rules of capitalism, routinely cherry-picking the best players from Scottish rivals and perhaps lending them back to await a call that may never come. In Scotland, they can afford to speculate in this way. In Europe, the arena in which they were all-conquering throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they have become a creche.

Leicester and Southampton and Huddersfield will never match Celtic’s achievements and history, but even their mediocrity can tempt someone such as Brendan Rodgers.

Observer

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