Not many football clubs have a father and son in the positions of Chairman and Head of Scouting and Recruitment respectively – but at the moment, Celtic do.
If you were unaware of any additional context, you would very possibly assume this as a case of blind nepotism – the extent to which that is the case is impossible to know exactly, but one thing that is for sure is that there is much, much more to it than just that.
Despite the 115 high-profile charges currently being levelled at its leading club at the moment, the City Football Group remains one of the most cutting-edge, wide-scale and successful organisations in sport.
Founded ten years ago as a multi-club ownership project which is now being emulated by several elite clubs, the CFG currently has 12 official subsidiary clubs globally, with the key player in the network of course being current European champions Manchester City.
The organisation is, essentially, a marriage between the business ambitions of Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Ferran Soriano – currently Chairman and Chief Executive of Manchester City respectively.
Al Mubarak, is the middle-man between the CFG and Abu Dhabi Group, working closely with UAE Deputy Prime Minister and official City Owner Sheikh Mansour – whilst Soriano is a former Vice President and acting CEO of FC Barcelona, playing a key role in City’s 2016 appointment of Pep Guardiola and subsequent centralisation of the footballing principles of the groups’ clubs.
CITY FOOTBALL GROUP’S EXPANSION
For the last decade, the pair have overseen the acquisition of clubs throughout the globe, from Salvador to Sicily.
Beginning with MLS franchise New York City in 2013, CFG member clubs now include Palermo, Bahia and Troyes – historic, reputable institutions in their respective countries who, for likely that reason, have avoided the identity overhaul given to NYCFC and others in the network who were renamed and given sky blue crests and kits to match their Manchester counterparts.
If they already own the dominant club in the biggest league in the world though, what is their motivation to assume control of a peculiar variety of clubs further down the food chain?
Whilst players are loaned to and from clubs within the group, that is far from the only reason, despite probably being the most obvious one.
The model also allows its owners to make more money in all the ways that well-run clubs typically do – external player trading, prize money, sponsorships, gate receipts and merchandise – largely down to the abundance of expertise among the CFG’s employees who, much like players, are enticed towards joining the organisation’s ‘lesser’ clubs by the prospect of climbing the network’s ladder to the highest level of football, learning and benefiting from being a part of an elite sporting organisation along the way.
HOW DOES THIS IMPACT CELTIC?
That is where Mark Lawwell, Celtic’s current Head of Scouting and Recruitment, comes in.
Lawwell’s background in recruitment dates back to 2012, when he was appointed as a recruitment analyst at Manchester City, before a growing reputation saw him rise to a prominent role within the CFG’s global operations as the project evolved.
Working closely with member clubs in Asia and the Americas, Lawwell established relationships with the likes of former Celtic director of football candidate Fergal Harkin, recently appointed Hoops scout Joe Dudgeon and – of course – the former man in charge at Celtic Park, Ange Postecoglou.
The Australian is a perfect example of the CFG’s eye for coaches and managers who suit their philosophy. When Celtic were faced with making a quick-fire appointment following the collapse of a deal to hire Eddie Howe in 2021, Postecoglou’s name was flagged up as a result of numerous glowing references among well-trusted contacts of the Lawwell family – and in the end, the club hit the jackpot as a result of the indirect influence of the Manchester-based institution.
Another much-admired coach within CFG conversations is Ronny Deila, whose appointment at Celtic was a similar shock to Postecoglou, but admittedly less of a roaring success even if it yielded successive league titles in a short two-year spell.
After returning to Norway following his departure from Glasgow, Deila was named New York City manager in 2020 in another show of faith from the group, which was rewarded with the franchise’s first and only MLS trophy in 2021 – the Norwegian later linked up with the aforementioned Fergal Harkin at Standard Liège in 2022, a similar example of CFG connections coming to the fore at a club outside of the official network.
Speaking to Optus Sport in 2019, Postecoglou said: “Working with CFG gives us the opportunity to tap into the international market – and them knowing the sort of player I am looking for (helps). They’re a good resource especially from a recruiting perspective, but in terms of day to day and football stuff, I assume they employed me because they like the way I do things.”
The coaching connections don’t end there – recently appointed Leicester City manager Enzo Maresca was heavily linked with the Hoops post following Postecoglou’s departure this summer, perhaps lined up as a ‘fall-back’ option just as Ange was in 2021.
This was yet another example of a little-known, left-field option being seriously considered by the club purely due to City Football Group connections, a very clear indication of the influence that they have in key decisions at Celtic Park.
As a supporter it is very easy to be sceptical of significant influence, especially by an organisation which is acquiring more football clubs year by year, in the thought process of those in charge at Celtic.
However, the evidence does show that this has been a beneficial relationship for the club, who’ve benefited not only from Postecoglou but the likes of Patrick Roberts, Jeremie Frimpong, Jason Denayer, Dedryck Boyata and Olivier Ntcham who have all made significant contributions upon making both loan and permanent moves from Manchester to Glasgow over recent years.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR CFG?
However, how the relationship can be mutually beneficial is certainly less clear. Whilst the opportunity to loan players to a club like Celtic which regularly dominates matches, competes for trophies and plays in Europe is undoubtedly a positive for City, the relative scarcity of said loan moves points towards other motivations – they couldn’t, could they?
Multi-club ownership is on the rise more than ever before, but throughout Dermot Desmond’s time as the club’s majority shareholder, Celtic have never even slightly felt like a club for sale. Perhaps a minority stake resulting in a similar relationship to that currently in use with Yokohama is more likely, with the infrastructure behind the scenes at Celtic Park benefitting from their partners’ expertise in youth development, sports science, networking and talent identification – both in players and coaches – as well as the obvious financial boost from additional investment.
In an admittedly short spell, Enzo Maresca has led Leicester City to the best ever start to an EFL Championship season – he is the latest example of how, similarly to players, coaches can be nurtured and developed under the watch of the group, as Mikel Arteta has shown by transforming Arsenal after being plucked from Pep Guardiola’s team of assistants in a similar manner.
Well-known admirers of Maresca, the Scottish champions could seriously benefit from first-hand knowledge of CFG-endorsed managerial candidates who evidently can turn out to be seriously “ahead of the curve” appointments.
Brian Marwood, Managing Director of Global Football at the CFG, discussed the group’s coach-hunting criteria with the Guardian in 2020: “It’s very detailed, if you look at our style, it’s about rotation. Playing through the lines. Building from the back. Combinations. Possession-based that has to have an outcome.
“We’re very keen to promote good values, behaviours, people that fit with our group,” Marwood added. “To understand the person is another element. If you have somebody in your house as a child and you develop them, you pretty much know after five, six, seven years what type of person they are. Then the ambition is that hopefully we can [allow] a great progression for them.”
WHAT NEXT FOR THIS PARTNERSHIP?
Of course, the 115 charges currently being pressed against Manchester City are currently a major black mark against them and their ownership – the City Football Group clearly aren’t perfect, and there is certainly a case to be made that Celtic are already in a position to benefit more than enough from their ties to the origination to consider giving up control over the day-to-day running of the club – regardless of how supporters may feel about the Parkhead ownership, the club is fundamentally well-run.
Celtic is a club with a uniquely strong moral identity, a source of great pride among the club’s supporters – a share of the club effectively becoming the property of an ethically questionable government would be a highly sensitive issue, bound to cause significant fractures in fan-club relations. To many of the Hoops faithful, the question of CFG investment would be met with a non-negotiable “no,” something which is perhaps a major reason why the pair’s current relationship is, even if highly evident, unofficial.
It remains an intriguing prospect however, as football rages on into an unpredictable future of multi-club ownership, greater financial inequality and a shift in power towards the Middle East. Dermot Desmond’s time as Celtic’s majority shareholder will inevitably come to an end, and conversations about the future of the club’s ownership will follow – Abu Dhabi’s Manchester-based millions could be knocking on the Celtic Park doors sooner than many think.