Graham Ruthven examines the reasons why Celtic should relinquish their best player since Henrik Larsson
Some Scottish football fans find it hard to believe Moussa Dembele could be valued by anyone at £40 million.
Mistrust of the mainstream media is strong north of the border, whether it be political or sporting, and stories over Premier League interest in the Celtic striker have become a target just like everything else.
But let’s recap what we know for certain - Dembele has his admirers, at least one bid was made by a Premier League club for him in January and for now Celtic are refusing their sell their star man, publicly stating that they believe the Frenchman to be worth more than the £20 million reported to be offered by West Ham.
Looking beyond all speculation over just how much the 21-year-old will fetch in the summer transfer window, there is a discussion to be had over what such valuations say about where Celtic find themselves as a club right now, and by extension what that means for Scottish football.
Dembele is the best Celtic player since Henrik Larsson, with the team Brendan Rodgers has built this season among the best seen at the club since the days of Martin O’Neill. What’s more, the Hoops are in a real position of financial strength, posting their half-year results up to December 2016 last week.
Overall revenue at the club was up by nearly 100% to £61 million, with profits jumping by £20 million. That is largely a direct result of qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in three years, with the Scottish champions claiming a share of this season’s bumper €143 million broadcast revenue pot. Celtic had raked in a guaranteed €28.3 million before they had even kicked a ball in the group stage.
This is why Celtic managers are now defined by their success or failure to make the Champions League. It’s why Ronny Deila was doomed the moment he failed to lead his team past Malmo in the 2015/16 play-off round. And it’s why Rodgers was backed like Deila never was, bringing in Scott Sinclair for £3 million after seeing off Hapoel Be’er Sheva over two legs in August.
And yet despite the £20 million sitting in the club’s bank account, and the revenue pouring in as the side breaks record after record under Rodgers, Celtic still stand little chance of keeping hold of Dembele past the summer. Such profits are only sustainable if they continue to qualify for the Champions League, and with the Scottish champions set to face an additional round of qualifying from next season that pulling up a seat at European football’s top table is only going to get tougher.
Moussa Dembele is enjoying life at Celtic and has scored 25 goals in all competitions for the Scottish champions this season, including three hat-tricks. Image: Andrew Milligan PA Wire/PA Images
The only guaranteed way for Celtic to sustain such high profits is to continue selling their best players - players like Virgil Van Dijk, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama and Dembele. "There are essentially two sources of revenue which make Celtic financially comfortable - Champions League cash, or player sales. Failure to achieve one means the other is required," says Scottish TV’s Grant Russell.
"Retaining Moussa Dembele would make little financial sense. The club can't match the level of salary he would attain in England, and he's an asset on the balance sheet at the end of the day. Sell him for £30m and that's success. Other players can be bought for 10% of that figure and still aid the club to the group stages."
Over the past two decades there has been a fundamental shift in the plates of British football. While the Scottish game could once at least compete with their English counterparts, the gulf is now so big the two are barely comparable. Dembele is the first player since Larsson to come close to bridging that gulf, offering a line of comparison between the Scottish champions and the Premier League elite.
Despite being one of the best strikers in the game, Celtic were able to hold on to Larsson for seven years before eventually losing him to Barcelona in the twilight of his career.
"The competitive and financial gulf between England and Scotland was not as stark as it is now," comments Russell, and therein lies the crux of the matter. Celtic might be as domestically dominant as they were under O’Neill, playing Champions League football and boasting as strong a side, but the circumstances around them have changed drastically.
Keeping a player of Dembele or Larsson’s ilk just isn’t feasible. Whatever the eventual fee, whether it’s £20 million or £40 million or somewhere in between, the sale of Dembele will put down a marker for Celtic and the Scottish game in general. The best since Larsson certainly won’t be around as long as Larsson.