On their trip to Dubai, Celtic did it in style. A private charter out of Glasgow and five nights at the exclusive Royal Meridien Beach Resort with its views of the Arabian Gulf, its 14 restaurants, its award-winning chefs, its 19 acres of landscaped gardens and its three swimming pools.
The hotel of champions with a room rate to match. Those with experience of such things have estimated Celtic’s trip at around the £250,000 mark.
We’re told they trained hard out there, that in this paradise from Paradise they got through a body of work they couldn’t have achieved had they done what all other teams in Scotland did and stayed at home. Clearly, none of it helped them in the earthier environs of the east end of Glasgow on Monday night.
A free-kick needlessly given away in the dying minutes against Hibs, a group of players unable to deal with Stevie Mallan’s delivery, a goalkeeper flapping, a defender panicking. Four errors in one passage of play. Did they not practise defending in Dubai? Unlike some of his opponents, Kevin Nisbet didn’t get much heat on his back last week, but his emphatic finish would have left him with the same kind of warm glow you might get when sitting poolside with a beer at a five-star hotel in the sun.
Trip has multiplied Celtic’s problems
How the landscape has changed. A year ago it was Rangers who imploded upon their return from Dubai and now it’s Celtic. A year ago it was Celtic who went roaring away to the title and now it’s Rangers. A year ago all the questions about mentality and decision-making and management were asked of the Ibrox board, Steven Gerrard and his players and now those same questions are being asked of Peter Lawwell, Neil Lennon and his players.
This dismal season of theirs has thrown up a number of grim moments, from the Champions League exit against Ferencvaros, to the Europa League maulings against Sparta Prague, to the domestic losses against Rangers and Ross County and the ugly scenes that happened in that period.
All of those told us much about the deterioration in playing standards, but the mental image of the manager, the assistant, the captain, the chief goalscorer and a dozen others watching the game against Hibs from the self-isolation of their own living room is an illustration of how awry things have become elsewhere in the club.
They might have left their problems behind for the guts of a week in the United Arab Emirates but those issues have multiplied now. Nineteen points behind Rangers when they left, the gap is now 21, but that’s only one of the things that have turned Celtic into a soap opera.
The fallout from their trip to Dubai has seen the Scottish government, the Scottish FA and the SPFL all criticised for not taking a strong enough lead. It’s true that the SPFL facilitated the trip. It’s also true that when issuing a statement on Monday about the pausing of the lower leagues, the SPFL had nothing to say about the Celtic farrago. Their champion club sparking chaos in the domestic game and incurring the wrath of other teams and not a peep from the governing body of the league. Not a word of criticism, not a suggestion of an investigation. The lack of leadership would be remarkable if it wasn’t so predictable.
An attitude of entitlement
This decision was Celtic’s, though. They own it and all the consequences. They travelled to Dubai when they had no need to. They put their own people at risk by flying 3,500 miles in a pandemic. They now have one positive Covid-19 test for Christopher Jullien and 16 people self-isolating.
They’re getting pelted with flak for their own recklessness while being laughed out of town for the abject situation they’ve plunged themselves into. Over the years the executive at Celtic have spoken often about how unique they are as a club, how they are an example to others in this country. They see themselves as a European club with attitudes to match. None of their recent travails in the Champions League and Europa League have changed their view of themselves.
Their statement on Monday suggested they still can’t see, or don’t want to see, the problem with the trip to Dubai. There was no acceptance that they did anything wrong, no contrition, no nod to the anger of a great number of their own supporters who are paying hundreds of pounds to watch television pictures of a team in decline, who are locking down and whose working lives and personal circumstances might be hugely affected by the world we’re living in right now.
The snapshot of Lennon and Scott Brown with beers by the pool was a nightmare of perception. The admission by John Kennedy, Lennon’s assistant, that in terms of following Covid-19 protocols Celtic had slipped up on “minor things” betrayed an attitude of arrogance and entitlement. As if “minor things” don’t matter in a pandemic.
There was no apology for these slip-ups, not from Kennedy or in the official club statement that was paragraph after paragraph of self-justification. Celtic spoke about their “rigorous protocols” without addressing Kennedy’s mention of breaches. Yes, they said, Jullien has tested positive and 13 players plus Lennon, Kennedy and one other staff member are self-isolating, but this could just as easily have happened in Glasgow as Dubai.
It was a risible defence. The reason so many are self-isolating is because plane and team bus manifests identified them as close contacts of Jullien. If there was no trip to Dubai there’d have been no plane, no need of a team bus. By travelling they put themselves in danger. They did it. Nobody else. Judging by their statement, Celtic would appear to be tone deaf to all of this.
Lower leagues ‘martyrs’ for Celtic failings?
The lower leagues have now been suspended. The SFA say the decision was not a response to Celtic’s failings, that it was going to happen anyway. How many clubs affected by the three-week shutdown will buy that? Iain McMenemy, chairman of Stenhousemuir, said: “It feels like the Scottish FA has come under pressure from the Scottish government to take action following the much-maligned trip by Celtic to Dubai, and their response has been to offer up lower league clubs as martyrs instead.”
Whether he’s right or wrong, McMenemy won’t be alone in that view. What is indisputable is that Celtic have badly lost their way. This is a club that had a firm reputation for making good decisions on and off the pitch during the nine-in-a-row years. It’s now a club that doesn’t just have a problem reading the flight of a football into their own box, but also has an issue in reading a room. It’s not difficult, or shouldn’t be.
Right now, everything is a struggle for them. Even the simplest things. Their slide into chaos has been remarkable.