For the fourth time in six seasons Peter Lawwell’s Champions gamble has failed. Bolstering the Balance Sheet has again taken priority over the fare on the park. Again.
Cluj now join the Hall of Shame that includes Maribor, Malmo and AEK Athens, the champions of middle ranking countries such as Sweden, Slovenia and Greece.
In each case Celtic were seeded with a playing budget four or five times that of their opponents. Now for the second year running the hoops have failed to even reach the Play Off stage.
Between those four failures were back-to-back successes created by the force of Brendan Rodgers but even then there were some scary moments against Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Astana. No lessons have been taken on board.
Last season’s exit to AEK Athens was largely the result of a transfer stand off between the egos of the manager and chief executive.
A squad badly in need of reinforcements was let down, there were no new faces on show in Athens. Stuart Armstrong and Patrick Roberts had left, Dedryck Boyata had walked out and Moussa Dembele came off the bench in one of his final appearances. Soon afterwards he was sold to Lyon for £20m to ensure that turnover would remain around £100m. A victory for the Balance Sheet Bhoys.
The seeds of tonight’s exit were sown a year ago. With Boyata, Mikael Lustig and Cristian Gamboa all in the final year of their contract reinforcements were badly needed. Instead Kieran Tierney was sold off to further weaken that area of the team.
Last season’s treble was won against weak domestic opposition as Scott Brown, James Forres and Callum McGregor dug deep.
A new defence was needed, last season’s team required four first team starters, they got one in the shape of Hatem Adb Elhamed.
Kris Ajer, Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie rose to the challenge last season to add to the contributions from Brown, McGregor and Forrest.
A well run club would have had two or three players signed up in June, settled into the side in July and contributing to the most important matches of the season in August. Celtic had one new signing in the starting XI with Christopher Jullien and Boli Bolingoli watching from the bench.
A new look defence invited Cluj forward during the first half. Forrest, Edouard and Christie scored after the break but the new look back four were chucking goals in just as quickly. Cluj have a settled side, Celtic were a group finding out about each other.
While the supporters, most who have shelled out £49 in the last few weeks on top of season tickets at £500, trudged home dejected the Chief Executive had already planned for failure with £25m coming in from Arsenal for Tierney.
Turnover should again be around £100m for the year ahead, there will be no need to pay out Champions League bonuses and around £3m has been trimmed from the wage bill for the management team.
Transfer plans will be reigned in, modest ambitions reduced further as the club attempt to talk up the Europa League assuming that they can get past next week’s Play Off tie. Whoever has the task of selling that match to the fans has a near impossible task on their hands.
Neil Lennon will be out there in the front line, taking the brunt of the criticism, some of it deserved but the real culprit is behind the scenes adjusting his spreadsheets to ensure that the Balance Sheet remains in the black. With Dembele and Tierney sold off on the back of failure the only certainty is that in the next two transfer windows at least one golden egg will be sold off as the product (team) continues to decline.