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Quinn denies board are tin men
The Ghost of Christmas Past paid a belated visit to Celtic Park at the end of the year in the spectral shape of our old nemesis, the infamous Biscuit Tin. To the sound of a clanking chain made up of old padlocks, dusty wallets and looted piggy banks, the Biscuit Tin mentality, we were assured by the papers, was alive and well and firmly reinstated in its old place at the head of the Parkhead boardroom.
As we looked on in bewilderment at this unexpected manifestation of the latest crisis to afflict the Hoops we could only wonder what had happened to scupper our ship which, until then, had appeared to be sailing on sublimely through the calmest of oceans. The answer was an interview with Celtic Chairman Brian Quinn which appeared in the Celtic View's "Massive 112 page Christmas Special" (December 19th 2001).
"Supporters have often asked how the Celtic plc board works, what it discusses and how it takes its decisions", gushed the View, before subjecting the Chairman to the third degree. With the desk lamp firmly shining in his eyes and the sweating heavies ready to beat him to a pulp if he failed to talk, Quinn was given a severe grilling by the View's resident Jeremy Paxman, having to field such probing questions as "How often does the Celtic board meet?" and "Does Martin O'Neill attend board meetings?"
With the Chairman singing like the proverbial canary Paxman slipped in a couple of curve balls. The one which had the hacks dusting off the "Celtic in Crisis" stories was, "How much money is available to Martin O'Neill to buy new players?"
Quinn's reply was, on the face of it, honest, realistic and fairly bland. "We have recently indicated that the amounts available to strengthen the football division further this season are likely to be limited. Nevertheless, the board will listen and consider any request that Martin might make and give it consideration (sic)".
He didn't say that there was no money available for new players should the manager feel it necessary to strengthen the team. Nor did he emulate a former Celtic Chairman, who once allegedly told Davie Hay during his stint in the hot seat that if he wanted to buy players he would have to buy them with his own money - possibly a stronger indication that your club is facing an imminent cash flow crisis than anything contained in Brian Quinn's statement.
Perhaps he should have said that although the club's finances were presently being run prudently, if OFM wanted £12 million tomorrow to rescue a player who was currently cavorting around Blackpool beach with kiddies on his back, we would pawn the silver to get the cash to buy him then sit back and cross our fingers. "No Chairman in full possession of his faculties would say such a thing and hope to get away with it", I hear you protest. "He would be rightly slaughtered in the papers for years to come". And you'd be right, unless the Chairman in question happened to be D. Murray, Gauleiter of the Death Star.
The "Celtic are skint" theme was predictably taken up with gusto by the hacks. Indeed it was subsequently embellished to the point that the Daily Express felt moved to use the word "paupers" and Celtic in the same context because of the amount of debt the club are servicing at the moment.
By January 2nd we were approaching meltdown. Sky's reporter David Tanner cornered Martin O'Neill after the 4:0 away win at Tannadice - a result which, incidentally, restored Celtic's 13 point advantage at the top of the Premier League - and opened his post-match interview with the mind-boggling question, "How much of a split is there between you and the board because they won't give you desperately needed funds?"
O'Neill fielded this particular piece of mischief with ease, but he might have asked Mr. Tanner to expand on where exactly the funds are most desperately needed to be spent. Which area of the team which is 13 points clear at the top of the league and not facing any imminent European crunch fixtures desperately needs new players?
Which isn't to suggest that strengthening the team is not necessarily a good idea. Merely that, given the circumstances, there would appear to be little evidence of desperation. Of course if we were facing a situation where the departure lounge was populated with an orderly queue of players waiting to leave, pausing only to bid a fond farewell to a collection of hopeless cases professing their willingness to see out their careers at the clubit might be a different story.
Another cudgel was taken up in the Sunday Mail by Gordon Waddell (December 30th 2001). Waddell has taken over the Mail's opinion column vacated by ex-Ranter In Chief Hugh "Bonkers" Keevins. This page was once famously offered to Kenny Dalglish in the middle of Kenny's Bairds Bar phase by editor George Cheyne with a challenge to produce "850 words of thought-provoking prose". Kenny declined the offer, which was a shame since it might well have been the first time ever 850 words of thought-provoking prose had appeared on this particular page. Instead, we're subjected to the usual 850 words which reads like a stream of semiconscious drivel. "You'd think Brian Quinn and his cronies... would speculate to allow O'Neill to accumulate... maybe they're sitting too far away from the action to hear the rumble from the stands", he dribbled, under a headline which pleaded "Give Martin cash before it's too late".
Yes folks, the Martin O'Neill for Old Trafford chestnut was trotted out again in the spurious context of Quinn's statement. It seems that no matter how many times the manager says that he is going to see out his contract the hacks will interpret this as some kind of Orwellian Doublespeak. He says he's staying so he must be going. Likewise with Quinn - he says they've got some money so they must have no money - and David Murray - he says they've no money so they must be ready to spend a fortune.
Once the word was out that money was once again an issue inside Parkhead the bloodhounds began sniffing around the Celtic accounts. Meanwhile, there was another financial story concerning the second best team in Glasgow which was being given slightly less of a profile in the tabloids. Commenting on the amount of debt Rangers are in David Murray dismissed the figure of £51 million and retorted that the real figure was £21 million, most of which was as a result of paying for Auchenhowie, aka Xanadu. "Off the field we are in a tremendous position", said Murray.
"You can see that last year's net debt stood at £9 million, so they have burnt about £40 million on cash in the last year", said a spokesman for Price Waterhouse Coopers, the accountant which produces the annual report into the SPL clubs' finances. "He is being a little bit selective." The fact that the figure of £51 million was printed in the Rangers financial statement also seems to have escaped major scrutiny.
Presumably then, Murray's club will be in an even more "tremendous" position should sponsors NTL go belly-up as well. Rangers owe them £15 million (what do you mean you thought they had been given £30 million by NTL? Whoever gave you that idea??) which would almost certainly be called in by the liquidators if the company collapses.
So much for the relative crises faced by each half of the Old Firm. You don't have to be John Maynard Keynes to work out whose bank manager will be able to nod off without the help of industrial strength sedatives.
The other can of worms opened by Quinn in his Celtic View interview came in response to the question "What happened to the £22.5 million raised by the share issue in the summer?"
Quinn's reply was as follows: "... the uses to which the £22.5 million is put can be tracked by calculating what we are spending this year compared with what we could have afforded to spend had that sum not been available. As indicated in the prospectus for the new share issue, the bulk of additional spending is on the football division."
All well and good - if you can follow Brian's boardspeak - but at the time the prospectus was issued Ian MacLeod and the rest of the suits were trying to drum up support for the latest share issue by committing the board to two things; further investment in the squad and funds for a new training facility. By which we here at NTV Mansions understood new players and a new training ground.
How many investors were tempted into buying shares by feeling that they were doing their bit to fund these things? How many would have still invested had the promise been to make do with the embarrassment that is Barrowfield for a few more years and improve the contracts of the players that are at Parkhead already?
As at mid-January 2002 OFM has spent something like £5 million net in the transfer market. So what happened to the rest of the £22.5 million? We'll probably have to wait for the interim accounts next month for the definitive answer - or at least a more intelligible one than that given above.
All of which leaves Martin O'Neill sitting with all the aces with regard to his contract extension negotiations which are due to commence at the end of the season, even if he doesn't win the treble again. He has never hidden the fact that he knew exactly what kind of fiscal restraints he would be working under when he took the job at Celtic Park, but he has also been making the kind of noises recently that suggest he's perfectly well aware of what a strong position he's in.
The Chairman responded that, "It is part of his job to do what he can to raise awareness of his situation", a reply which suggested that if there wasn't a full blown rift then at least there was a polite burp between them. He went on to say, "Of course part of our responsibility is to support the manager as far as possible... but people should understand that the two elements, getting the football side and the business side right are quite difficult to reconcile."
It will be interesting to see how much of a reconciliation has been achieved by the summer when the season ticket money is in and progress in the Champions League depending on buying a few players that are better than the ones we already have.
As for talk of a crisis, here's two words to think about should the thought ever cross your mind again; Kevin Kelly.
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