Celtic: Farewell Then, Peter Lawwell… At Last

by | Feb 1, 2021

Hot takes are not my forte, as the following may indicate. But my hottish one on Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell’s retirement is not a favourable one. And it isn’t getting any more favourable as it cools.

I would ask him just one question, now that he has “decided” to retire, on June 30th. When Rangers become Scottish champions this season, will it be their first league title, or their 55th? He wouldn’t answer, I’d guess. And if he did, I wouldn’t have absolute faith in his answer’s veracity. Because his late and defining years as Celtic CEO suggest strongly that he’d be as happy as any denizen of Ibrox Stadium to congratulate the club on its 55th title, which any genuine Celtic fan would acknowledge as “some achievement” by a nine-year-old club.

That says so much about Lawwell’s determination to suppress his instincts as the genuine Celtic fan he certainly once was. And so much more about how his desire to work in the company’s financial interests (which he believes a healthy Rangers serves) overwhelmed any desire to work in the interests of its core business, football (which Rangers’ death in 2012 served). A desire which underpinned his insistence in telling the “survival lie” about Rangers.

Last February, I wrote a piece about Lawwell entitled “A Man Divisive,” which at the time among Celtic’s support, he was. Many fans considered his legacy tarnished, for many reasons. While among those more kindly disposed towards him, it rested on his ability to deliver the history-making ten consecutive Scottish league titles. But that year, despite containing a Scottish League and Cup double and the completion of a historic four consecutive domestic trophy trebles, has been Celtic’s worst for years and the all-time worst of Lawwell’s over-long Celtic boardroom career.

That February article, https://www.twohundredpercent.net/celtic-lawwell-divisive , needs little update as an obituary for his tenure as boardroom chief. He has been a consistent success with Celtic PLC’s bottom line since joining an over-spending company in 2003. And that success has left Celtic in a better position to deal with Covid’s fiscally corrosive effects than many clubs of comparable financial stature. Yet this “success” has proven fully deserving of those inverted commas.

Lawwell’s insistence upon financial prudence and discipline has left Celtic unable to compete with a Rangers club overspending as wildly (and paying taxes as intermittently) as their dead predecessors, while getting things right on the pitch, home and abroad, for the first sustained period in their history. Yet his unwillingness, in his leading roles in Scottish club football, to apply comparable discipline, such as ‘financial fair play’ regulation, to Scotland’s other professional clubs has let Rangers rack up annual multi-million losses to pay for denying Celtic “ten-n-a-row.”

The new Rangers have financially patient, admirably supportive directors, who have kept Ibrox’s proverbial lights on in the hope that Champions League riches will arrive before the lights go out. And while Celtic fans have increasingly cited Rangers’ losses, in direct proportion to Rangers’ league lead, the more discernible have noted Lawwell’s culpability. Lawwell has left them with no scope for complaint, as not even Rangers can break non-existent financial rules. And this culpability is among many candidates for the title of his most damning legacy.

The official “has decided to retire” line is round objects, whether it is true or not. Especially hard to credit is the idea that “principal shareholder Dermot Desmond” did “my utmost’ to “dissuade” him from “considering retirement.” The only reason to even delay his retirement, let alone dissuade him from it, would be to ensure a proper transition period for Lawwell’s replacement. And this is the one aspect of the change Celtic appear to have got right.

The new guy, Scottish rugby chief operating officer Dominic McKay, has a PR background which could right many of the most blatant wrongs of Lawwell’s last months. He’s had a good view of them, too. He has been trumpeted as a “long-term season ticket holder,” though, mercifully, he doesn’t appear to have been “born into Celtic.” And as well as being Scottish Rugby’s chief operator since 2015, he has club rugby and league administration experience, predominantly on the commercial side. This offers hope that he will keep his nose out of the football and let the new team manager…well…manage the team.

Most of Lawwell’s farewell statement can be filed under “me…me…me…blah, blah, blah…” Rarely have I seen a retiree contribute so comprehensively to their own tribute in an official club statement about their own retirement. This presents about the only hint that the timing of his retirement was to his liking. And it speaks volumes about his voluminous ego, because it wasn’t as if others were short of a tribute or two.

But that Glaswegian-accented hollow laughter you can hear is from the Celtic fans behind ‘Resolution 12,’ as Celtic chairman Ian Bankier insisted that “we must also recognise” Lawwell’s “huge role in promoting Celtic’s interests at a European level.” The story of the resolution (see https://res12.uk/ for details) is fundamental to any full evaluation of Lawwell, as he feigned interest in the resolutions’ concerns about Celtic being denied a Champions League place in 2011 when Rangers were licenced to play in Europe despite owing social taxes which should have denied them that licence.

The standout paragraph of Lawwell’s goodbye serves as an admission of his ultimate failure, not that he’s sufficiently self-aware to see that. “Celtic’s reputation is built on three pillars,” he declared. “Success on the field of play, sound business management and a real and sincere charitable ethos.” Even if we allow him the charitable ethos, a phrase McKay worked into his first statement to Celtic fans, that leaves him with ONLY that last one out of three. Which IS bad.

Success on the field of play, aside from the Invincibles’ season, has been at least as attributable to their largest rivals not being good enough to be IN Scottish football’s top-flight, or good enough once they got there. With gate receipts such a large proportion of Scottish clubs’ income in an era of small broadcast deals which are arguably a waste of even the little money they provide, the club which bought the second-biggest stadium in Scottish club football were inevitably going to be the biggest rivals to the club with the biggest stadium.

And sound business management, Lawwell’s major (only?) selling point in his early years, has been posted missing since 2012. Lawwell was so enamoured with the business opportunities provided by the “Old Firm” that he seemed almost lost without a Rangers with which to link arms on the road to English Premier League riches. This is why, on the subject of the “Five-Way Agreement” which governed and facilitated post-liquidation Rangers’ birth, he was especially ‘prudent’ with the truth, claiming not to have seen a document discussed during at least one meeting HE attended.

Lawwell should have gone in 2016, when Brendan Rodgers became manager. Rodgers was about the only quality such appointment during his tenure. And it wasn’t his. This, to many, explains his role in Rodgers’ departure, 22 months after signing a contract which would have kept him, as the song goes, “here for ten-in-a-row.” We may never know the whole story of this clash of undeniably large egos. But every part version involves Lawwell acting like a director of football. Rodgers seems to have a more effective relationship with Leicester City’s CEO, whose name is…. Exactly.

Furthermore, the post-Rodgers era has only validated the Green Brigade fan group’s August 2019 banner depicting Celtic’s hierarchy as ‘asleep at the wheel.’ And they haven’t woken up since. A snooze no better exemplified than by reports that Rangers’ cohesion this season took said hierarchy by surprise.

Lawwell’s last lie is still playing out. In December, the board strongly backed Lennon as the calls for his sacking crescendo-ed. “Progress,” they said, would “be reviewed in the New Year.” And any such review could only draw one conclusion. But if Lennon remains, there was either no planning for his failure, or no sincere review in the first place. On Lawwell’s current form, either scenario seems possible.

Club captain Scott Brown’s suggestion that Lawwell “should have a statue” was jokey (I hope). But his gushing tribute (“he’s won nine-in-a-row, he’s won quadruple trebles”) was as daft as his recent red card at Livingston, itself the daftest piece of top-flight football I have ever seen. Yet Brown sensibly suggested that we should look at “how well the club is sitting after all these years.”

Many have looked, and seen Lawwell claim in his farewell that Celtic “facing a natural period of transition at the end of this season” was “obvious.” But if this was “obvious,” it was only due to years of boardroom drift. At the end of this season, Celtic should have been facing and making history, after years building from a position of strength. They weren’t. And that, and Rangers’ title, first or fifty-fifth, is Lawwell’s ultimate, damning legacy.