Time to spend - or risk losing O'Neill

Celtic's backward step in Europe has set off alarms. Phil Gordon hears a call for action
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The Independent Online

There is a statue to honour almost anyone who has done anything in Donetsk. From John Hughes, the Welshman who founded the steel town, to an unknown miner carrying a lump of coal; from Lenin in typically-heroic pose, to a gaudy, gold tribute to a third-rate singer outside the opera house.

There is a statue to honour almost anyone who has done anything in Donetsk. From John Hughes, the Welshman who founded the steel town, to an unknown miner carrying a lump of coal; from Lenin in typically-heroic pose, to a gaudy, gold tribute to a third-rate singer outside the opera house.

It is doubtful if Dermot Desmond had the time to take all of this local culture in during his flying visit to the Ukrainian city. Yet, the Irish millionaire could guarantee a statue of himself several thousand miles away in Glasgow if he financed Celtic's dream of holding on to their hard-earned European reputation.

Desmond, the club's major shareholder, did not wait around to sample the gloom that descended on Donetsk on Thursday morning. The weather symbolised the mood of the Celtic squad who flew home after the numbing 3-0 defeat from Shakhtar Donetsk virtually ended their interest in this season's Champions' League.

Martin O'Neill was not with his players. He had flown home on Desmond's private jet to ensure he would be able to deliver the eulogy to Brian Clough at Pride Park that night, but no doubt he was bending Desmond's ear about the need for greater investment, ahead of today's Scottish Premier League encounter at Livingston.

Celtic's stock plunged in Group F with a third successive defeat. This time it was not the old money of Milan or Barcelona who proved too rich for Celtic's blood but the new money of eastern Europe. Just as Donetsk is an uneasy mix of Hugo Boss shops and BMWs barely streets away from abject poverty, so Shakhtar are casting off their humble past thanks to the patronage of Rinat Akhmetov, the oil billionaire who has sunk £50m into Mircea Lucescu's team and is about to build them a new £110m stadium.

All of which was too much for another Irishman. Neil Lennon's bluntness is not confined to his tackles. The Celtic midfielder surveyed the gap in playing resources and called for his boss to be given some real money to spend on players - or run the risk of losing of O'Neill.

Lennon believes Celtic have gone backwards since losing to Porto in extra-time in the 2003 Uefa Cup final. The irreplacable talent of Henrik Larsson has gone, of course, to Barça. Without the influence of the injured Alan Thompson, Celtic were stripped bare by injuries that robbed them of Chris Sutton and Jackie McNamara.

"We could not afford to lose Chris and Jackie at this level," reflected Lennon. "We brought on three kids but it is hard to ask them to do a man's job. We have put in so much good work in Europe and we don't want that to start ebbing away, but it's looking that way at the minute unless we can strengthen the squad - or else we're going to be the whipping boys all the time.

"We have come against far better teams than Shakhtar and that's not being disrespectful. The squad is not as good as it was two years ago. I can't tell the board what to do but if we are to progress we have to spend eventually.

"I'm sure the Ukrainian league is not the strongest in the world but they do have the financial backing we don't have. I think if the club could get a wee bit of backing we could really go places with this manager but, right now, we seem to be going backwards, rather than forwards." Asked if he feared O'Neill leaving Parkhead out of frustration, Lennon simply said: "You'd have to ask the manager that."

O'Neill, before disappearing with Desmond, admitted that the defeat had exposed "the threadbare nature of the squad". While Celtic were bringing on Ross Wallace and Stephen McManus and Aiden McGeady - all products of their youth system - to fill the gaps, elsewhere around the Champions' League benches were groaning under the weight of expensive reputations. Milan brought on Hernan Crespo while Chelsea had Joe Cole in reserve.

It did not help that while Juninho was not living up to his reputation, fellow Brazilian Matuzalem was scoring twice to underline why Shakhtar paid £10m to lure him from Serie A. Yet, with tickets costing just 31p in the Olympiyskiy Stadium, you will be lucky to see a balanced book of accounts putting Shakhtar into the rich list. Celtic are there, thanks to a record £70m turnover with virtually no TV income. The Parkhead fans have answered the call. Perhaps it is time for Desmond and the board to do likewise.

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