Celtic’s Peter Lawwell: A Man Divisive

by | Feb 21, 2020

Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell could divide the proverbial empty room…and not just on the thorny issue of how much the 60-year-old accountant-by-profession resembles a youthful version of ex-Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.

Chief and other senior executives in football are regularly scapegoated for clubs failings (e.g. Manchester United’s “executive vice-chairman” Ed Woodward). And the latest scapegoating Lawwell, peaked when Rangers won at Celtic on 29th December, to go a point behind the Scottish Premiership (SPS) leaders; This continued as Celtic spent conservatively during January’s transfer window, despite having, according to their latest accounts, about £40m “in the bank.”

That vitriol has been in inverse proportion to Celtic’s SPS lead. However, Lawwell has divided Celtic’s fanbase in good times and bad. The issue is invariably the emphasis he places on cash-in-the-bank over player-investment. Although other clubs’ fans consider Lawwell an “unseen hand” running Scottish football for Celtic’s, and his own financial, benefit.

Lawwell was Celtic’s ‘financial controller’ from 1990-1991, rejoining Celtic in September 2003. That May, Celtic narrowly lost the Uefa Cup Final to a brash, talented Porto team with a brash, talented coach, which won the 2004 Champions League (CL). On the way, Celtic beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield. But that success was expensive.

In 2000, Rangers had won 13 of the previous 15 Scottish titles, aided by spendthrift owner David Murray’s extravagant over-spending. Celtic were 15 minutes from extinction in 1994, before frugal owner Fergus McCann redeveloped the club from top-to-tail, on-field and off. McCann left in September 1999, after the five years he promised he would stay. Like Lawwell, McCann was criticised for financial over-prudence. But by 2003, after Martin O’Neill spent three years rejuvenating Celtic’s team, they were £18m in debt.

A Scotsman newspaper profile marking his appointment, initially as ‘Executive Director, Head of Operations, said he was “regarded as…pragmatic, driven and successful.” So, those prepared to look knew what was coming.

In his first Celtic plc accounts report, in August 2004, he cited a Stalinist-sounding “five-year plan” and “cost rationalisation programme,” to improve “financial performance and efficiency.” Because despite a League and Scottish Cup double and beating Barcelona en route to the Uefa Cup quarter-finals, there remained “significant challenges in balancing the costs of football success with long-term financial stability.”

And, year-by-year, now-familiar Lawwell-speak emerged. The “football sector” was “under severe financial pressure,” mostly from “wage inflation” while “media revenue values continue to soften.” CL qualifier exit in 2005 added “operational and financial challenges.” So he delighted in “close season transfer activity” substantially reducing “football wage costs,” leading to “a sustainable financial position.”

Emphases changed. 2006’s headline “intention” was “a managed ratio between turnover and labour costs” with the “desire to assist in delivering on-field success” further down the page. And by 2008, with bank debt below £5m, Lawwell had attracted attention beyond Scotland. His next CEO report declared that “funding” Celtic’s success “must clearly recognise the financial constraints…as Celtic continues to play in the Scottish football environment,” the first formal hint of Lawwell’s fiscal dissatisfaction with Scottish football.

That September, Lawwell was linked to Arsenal’s CEO role. The Telegraph newspaper said he was on a two-man shortlist but had rejected a £1m-a-year salary. He explained that October: “This is more than a club. Arsenal are a fantastic club…but if I went there it would just be a job. What I have here is more than that.” Yet discontent grew, with a now-familiar suggestion that Celtic’s transfer activity hadn’t taken full advantage of Rangers’ financial troubles. Indeed, swathes of a January 2009 piece by the Guardian newspaper’s Ewan Murray could have been penned last month:

“Rangers’ financial troubles, who knows what in the realms of the cataclysmic may occur if a player is not sold for big money, have been an obvious source of amusement. That the board appear unwilling to inflict a series of potentially fatal blows on Rangers when they are down may prompt concern among (fans).

“Four points separate Celtic and Rangers. It would be unwise to stake too much on (who) will claim (the title). Which shouldn’t be the case…Celtic have been far from shy to publicise their financial strength…Onlookers have cause to quiz Celtic’s relative lack of action. A host of young players have arrived from all corners of the globe, Lawwell stating it is now club strategy to nurture young talent.

“(Celtic)…do not appear willing to replicate the £4.5m purchase of Scott Brown…only an overtly cautious policy prevents such signings. Nobody would advocate crazy spending. Merely a little sensible speculation could hurt Rangers. As it stands, there is a danger of allowing a relatively modest Rangers team to claim the title.”

Rangers DID “claim the title”…and the next two, while Lawwell used 2008’s global economic meltdown and the 2009 collapse of the SPL’s TV deal with Setanta, to excuse on-going fiscal caution. And Murray’s last line seemed the most prophetic: “There is a case for too much fiscal prudence prompting (Celtic boss) Gordon Strachan to seek more lucrative pastures.” Strachan did leave that summer, although he had consistently, effusively praised Lawwell throughout his tenure.

“He’s magnificent at what he does,” Strachan said in September 2007. And in January 2009, he insisted that “People will start appreciating what Peter…has done over the last two years, now that you see so many clubs in danger. Peter has secured this club’s future, it is well and truly safe.” However, fans saw Strachan’s replacement with ex-player Tony Mowbray as furthering the “down-sizing” in managerial quality since O’Neill.

Hindsight adds foresight to Lawwell’s 2009/10 report. Alongside his now-annual “unsustainable wage and transfer-fee inflation” material, he said Celtic were “better-placed” financially than “many” clubs “heavily in debt” with “ongoing losses.” He also noted the acquisition of “exciting young players with valuable potential,” i.e. sell-on value. The “project player” era was up-and-running.

The full-time hiring of Neil Lennon, who interim-replaced Mowbray in March 2010, reeked of financial expediency, but worked. Eventually. Celtic effectively lost the 2011 title. And they were third in the league by October, only to be first by January 2012, as Rangers collapsed on-and-off-the-field.

But in February 2011, it was revealed recently, Lawwell had e-mailed Ibrox CE Martin Bain about the “Old Firm” joining the Premier League (EPL) and what they would “bring to English football.” It defined Old Firm thinking, Lawwell seeking exit from “financial constraints,” Bain desperate to fix Rangers’ desperate finances…and sod Scottish football.

However, Lawwell overstated the global importance of a game no longer “ranking alongside Spain’s “El Classico.” The desperation to show that, without the Old Firm, “Scottish league football has a chance” was…well…desperate. In 2012, Lawwell was “disappointed” with “the performance of Scottish teams in Europe and the effect that has on co-efficient” (clubs’ Uefa competition rankings). Yet he didn’t care how the ‘Old Firm’s’ flight would “effect” said co-efficient. And these EPL ambitions clearly governed Lawwell’s attitude to Rangers’ contemporary controversies.

If fans knew of this then, his claim, when Rangers applied for administration, that “we don’t rely on any other club,” would have crumbled. He’d punted this pish in October 2008, claiming that “we don’t flex our budget because of the opposition,” after Rangers’ early CL exit. But the Bain e-mail sold an Old Firm package, citing “the value” of their “rivalry” and “the commercial value” of “rivalries” between “giant clubs,” Lawwell labelling the Old Firm “giants,” while mere “large” clubs included, bizarrely even then, “Manchester City.”

With these issues under wraps, Lawwell still had fans. In October 2011, the Herald newspaper’s Richard Wilson suggested that “(depicting) Lawwell as an accountant more interested in prudence than glory” was fan-scapegoating. And he’d “survived longer than his four predecessors” because despite “fluctuating” on-field  form, “off the field Celtic have grown in strength and stability…which explains why he is linked with Manchester City” (who might have been less keen if they’d read the Bain e-mail).

As Rangers entered administration, in February 2012, Lawwell insisted that Celtic had a “stand-alone strategy (and) financial plan and a robustness (to) take us through.” But by the time Rangers’ fatality was confirmed in June, Lawwell had only added: “We will do what is in the best interests of Celtic and our supporters, consistent with upholding the interests and reputation of Scottish football.” Cynics translated Lawwell’s interpretation of Celtic’s “best interests” as letting a new Rangers join the SPL.

Indeed, Celtic kept silent before the SPL’s July vote on that. They voted against. And a club statement acknowledged the “depth of feeling” against. But Lawwell maintained that: “Whilst the financial implications for Celtic and the Scottish game will be very significant…Celtic has a business plan and strategy independent of any other club.”

Celtic won the league. And in his annual report that September, Lawwell grabbed the credit. His “strategy adopted a number of years ago…is now bearing fruit. We have a young, vibrant squad with,” natch, “significant value and potential.” And, he re-iterated: “good financial management and cost control has been central to…withstanding the uncertainty and financial effects of the problems at Rangers and the prolonged economic downturn.”

These “effects” were softened by Celtic reaching the CL last-16 for the first time since 2007. In January 2013, the Guardian’s Kevin McKenna hagiographically compared Lawwell’s transfer nous to “England, where vast sums are thrown at a depressing array of mediocrities in a desperate attempt to secure Premier League survival.” And the Financial Times’ Mure Dickie wondered how Glasgow could provide “a lesson in sensible soccer business management” despite “the disaster at once-mighty local club Rangers,” phraseology to delight Celtic’s FT readership.

The perils of Lawwell’s strategy pervaded his September 2013 annual report, however. There was, at last, “cash in the bank,” £3.76m, but thanks mostly to three Barcelona game heroes being sold “for well in excess of book value.” And while “investment in young talent” was “reflected by the arrival of” a certain “Virgil Van Dijk,” the next listed arrivals included “Amido Balde, Steven Moyoukolo, Derk Boerrigter and Teemu Pukki,” who were flops.

And in May 2014, Lennon left, constrained by Lawwell’s strategy and unimpressed by some “project” players. That he had “taken Celtic as far as he could” was more of an assessment of Lawwell’s strategy than of his own limitations. He had English managerial ambitions. But, the BBC’s Richard Wilson wrote: “Lennon is not leaving (for) a different club. That alone is a measure of his view about the coming season at Celtic, since few managers actively seek a period of unemployment.”

So, Lawwell had to herald 2014 as the “beginning of a transition for Celtic.” This was “marked” by the June appointment of Norwegian “Ronny Deila, a young manager with progressive ideas.” Proper down-sizing, this. After years of “project players,” Lawwell was now into “project managers.” And the transition was from Champions League regulars to Europa League also-rans.

But Lawwell knew Celtic were title certainties and, as Wilson also wrote in 2014, “a period of adjustment could be weathered,” especially as Rangers took a pit-stop in the second-tier in 2015. Then penalty shoot-out defeat to Rangers in 2016’s Scottish Cup semi-final split Celtic between still-believers in “project” managers (Lawwell) and non-believers (everyone else). “Lawwell & Deila’s legacy, empty jerseys, empty hearts, empty dreams and empty stands,” read one Celtic Park banner, despite Deila’s two titles.

That May, Lawwell told the Scottish Sun newspaper’s Robert Grieve that he’d love to give the new manager “a £40m warchest” (that figure again) “to buy the best and go for it. But we play in Scotland, (so) we don’t have an alternative to what we’re doing. For me that’s an exciting project for the right manager, the right guy.” But not for Celtic’s largest shareholder, Dermot Desmond.

So, when Brendan Rodgers’ appointment was announced, NINE days later, Lawwell said: “We wanted to bring one of the biggest and best names to Celtic to match our own aspirations and those of our supporters. We believe, in appointing Brendan, that we have done this,” his use of “we” indicating that the decision wasn’t his alone.

2016 “did not meet expectations,” Lawwell understated colossally in his September annual report. But Rodgers was instantly transformative. In September 2017,  je had yet to lose domestically. Yet Lawwell conflated Rodgers’ “success in European football” with his own “prudent management of player registrations” in facilitating on-going investment “in…creating a world-class football club.” But fans believed Celtic hadn’t “built from a position of strength.” And they feared that ten-(titles)-in-a-row, long-thought inevitable, would be imperilled if Rangers ever appointed a ‘proper’ manager.

Yet in September 2018, after Rodgers’ first Champions League qualifier exit, Lawwell was quick to stress that the £7.1m (14%) increase in “total labour costs” was “largely due to increases in the football department.” He trumpeted Odsonne Edouard’s signing “for a club-record fee.” But £9m seemed a lot for the “project player” he was when he joined on-loan in August 2017. It smacked of panic-buying in response to resurfaced criticisms of transfer market inactivity, even if it has proved a snip. And the criticism grew when Celtic began the domestic campaign as dismally as their Champions League campaign ended.

So, Rodgers may have believed that Lawwell would cop the flak for him joining Leicester City last February. But the grubby, ill-timed nature of his flight (with the title unsecured) drew the ire, temporarily, away from Lawwell. And Lennon’s re-hiring and initial success kept that ire away, until Lawwell gave Lennon the job full-time after Celtic retained the Scottish Cup, classily offering him the role in the dressing-room shower. As in 2011, the move reeked of penny-pinching. But, as in 2011, it worked. Eventually.

Celtic bought defenders last summer but failed to prevent another ignominious UCL qualifier exit. And Lawwell took the flak. Yet, in January, Celtic signed…two “project” players. As Murray concluded above: “Nobody would advocate crazy spending. Merely a little sensible speculation. As it stands, there is a danger of allowing a relatively modest Rangers team to claim the title.” With Celtic seeking a Scottish record ten titles in-a-row, this IS “crazy.” Celtic’s post-winter-break form has diverted criticism from Lawwell. But apart from straitened financial times, what better time is there to spend multi-millions “in-the-bank?”

Lawwell would say, cynics would say, “my salary.” Celtic’s annual report revealed his remuneration was £3.55m, £1.16m salary and fees, £2.37m in “performance-incentive” bonuses. Chairman Ian Bankier told Celtic’s November AGM that Lawwell was “worth every penny.” And even Lennon said: “Peter is the best and sometimes you have to pay for the best,” although that might have been a criticism of Lawwell’s reluctance to do so.

But when the ‘Price of Football’ website’s Kieran Maguire published the figure earlier that month, it got a more mixed reception among fans. “It’s obscene,” said one. Another suggested that “if Dermot Desmond didn’t think he was worth it, he wouldn’t be on it.” Another asked if “other CEs in world football” were on “as high a portion” as Lawwell’s “6% of Celtic’s total wage bill.” And fans were unimpressed when the Times newspaper revealed last month that Man Yoo’s Woodward was the EPL’s “highest-paid club director” at £3.16m.

Lawwell is now facing flak about the “five-way agreement” (5WA), a confidential 2012 agreement between Scotland’s then-three football governing bodies and the then-two ‘Rangers,’ setting out the terms for granting the new club SFA membership. Lawwell was asked if Celtic were involved in the 5WA and if he had seen it. He twice said “no.” But, last month, it was revealed that the 5WA was attached to a 26th July 2012 e-mail from then-SPL CE Neil Doncaster to, among others, Celtic’s then-financial director Eric Riley and…Lawwell.  Explanations are, ahem, awaited with interest.

And Lawwell faces additional flak for his attitude to “Resolution 12” to Celtic’s 2013 AGM, concerning the SFA’s award of a Uefa licence to Rangers in 2011, weeks after his ‘Old Firm to the EPL’ e-mail to Bain. In (very) short (again), Lawwell told the 2019 AGM it was “not in the best interests of the company” to pursue the issues, after publicly pretending that he would pursue them. This was despite receiving the evidence he’d requested, from those who tabled the resolution, that Celtic were financially wronged.

On an altogether more serious issue, Lawwell was heavily criticised last May for his and Celtic’s response to the conviction of former kitman and Celtic Boys’ Club (CBC) coach James McCafferty for child sex offences over 24 years. Four CBC staff had been convicted since November 2018, including its founder, chairman and an ex-manager. Celtic expressed “deep regret and sorrow” but consistently denied responsibility, arguing that the CBC was a separate entity.

Victims’ solicitor Patrick McGuire threatened compensation claims if “Celtic’s board and Chief Executive” continued to “hide behind lawyers” and didn’t accept that the four had “operated under the Celtic umbrella.” MSPs Adam Tomkins and James Dornan also criticised Celtic’s response. Dornan, whose son played for CBC, said calling it a separate entity was “in no way accurate.”

Lawwell said it was “simply not true” that Celtic were “doing nothing and abdicating responsibility,” claiming that legalities “constrained” public comment. He said Dornan “appeared to disregard…due process of law” and revealed that “some time ago our insurers appointed a wholly independent and experienced lawyer who is investigating this matter on behalf of the club.” His criticisms were inordinately bullish. And mentioning insurers struck a jarring note. Even if their case was legally strong, it was morally wrong. And Celtic should surely offer due redress to victims, given how carefully their finances are managed.

Alongside such issues, judging Lawwell on football matters seems trivial. There are no comparisons of scale, just a comparable attitude, a clinical corporatism, a desire to avoid ‘heart-not-head’ thinking which over-stretches.

If Celtic clinch nine/ten-in-a-row, all criticism will be submerged by triumphalism. But while Lawwell has undoubtedly delivered for Celtic PLC, it is difficult to gauge how much football success since 2003 has been despite, not because of, him. Only if Celtic don’t clinch ten, or even nine-in-a-row will Lawwell’s ability to divide an empty room desert him.