John Park – The Man Behind the Curtain

On Wednesday 7th of November, a night was etched in Celtic history. Another famous scalp to go with the countless others of the past. Celtic stood tall and went toe-to-toe with Barcelona and came out as victors, propelled by the strong Wall of Noise that greets all opposing teams when they enter Celtic Park. The birth of this current Celtic squad can be drawn back to the summer of 2010 when Celtic’s most valuable asset was sold and with that money the current Celtic squad was built. A squad that has now squared up to the best the world can offer and has come out with absolutely no fear in their eyes.

Arguably, the most important individual in Celtic’s re-transformation (along with Neil Lennon) is someone who is only starting to have his name mentioned, John Park. His name has now become synonymous with the recent resurgence of quality signings into Parkhead and rightly so.

Previous to his time at Celtic, Park worked as the Head of Youth Developement at Hibernian. During this spell, Hibs went through a successful era regarding their youth policy. Many players promoted through their youth ranks or young players brought in to Hibs from elsewhere at the time of Park’s employment in this role went on to have significant success in the Scotland national team. The most prominent group of players in this group were Steven Fletcher (Wolves), Gary Caldwell (Wigan), Steven Whittaker (Norwich), Kevin Thomson (Middlesbrough). Scott Brown (Celtic) and Gary O’Connor (Hibs, formerly Lokomotiv Moscow and Birmingham). Park was also part of the Motherwell youth setup that brought through James McFadden and Lee McCulloch. In total, these players have amassed 208 international caps between them.

In 2007 Celtic signed John Park and appointed him as their Football Development Manager. His job in this role would be to re-structure the youth system and to seek talent to improve the overall quality of the squad. The failure of Tony Mowbray’s time at Celtic, particularly the utter failure of numerous big money transfers, forced them to re-think their strategy. The costliest of these being Jos Hoiveld, Marc Antoine Fortune and Danny Fox, along with the expensive and seemingly dead-end loans of Robbie Keane and Diomansy Kamara, both who were on wages beyond Celtic’s living expenses. The only two signings from the Mowbray era to be of relative success later at Celtic were two of the lesser known talents brought in – Thomas Rogne and Ki Sung Yeung – something that would become more common for Celtic.

After the re-evaluation of their activity in the transfer market, Celtic took on a more driven approach and started to follow the transfer philosophy of the model clubs such as Porto, Benfica and Ajax – buying players in from leagues of smaller nations and selling these players on for profit before the stature of the player’s wage demands grow beyond the club’s means. The lack of any sizable revenue in the TV coverage of the Scottish Premier League meant they had to fill that gap through selling players, despite Celtic’s season ticket figures matching most of the top teams in England. Over the past two years since then, John Park has brought in practically a squad worth of talent to Parkhead. For the money the club gained with the departure of McGeady, Fortune and Boruc, they were able to bring in a whole new dawn of Celtic stars. Players were brought in from a varied range of clubs such as Gary Hooper (Scunthorpe), Victor Wanyama (Beerschot AC), Emilio Izaguirre (Motagua), Beram Kayal (Maccabi Haifa), Joe Ledley (Cardiff), Adam Matthews (Cardiff), Kelvin Wilson (Nottingham Forrest) , Fraser Forster (Newcastle), Mikael Lustig (Rosenborg) and Efe Ambrose (FC Ashdod). These are all players that Celtic will almost certainly achieve a 100% profit on if they are sold. Celtic reportedly turned down a £7m offer for Hooper from Southampton in the summer, Celtic originally paid £2.4m for him. Fraser Forster has recently broken into the England squad and it looks as though it could only be a matter of time before he cements the number 2 role behind Joe Hart as his own. Emilio Izaguirre dazzled in his first season in Scotland winning numerous individual awards at the end of the 2010/11 season. Something of a bargain for only £650,000. All of these players were signed for a total roughly of £7.1m. Therefore, Celtic more or less just about covered all of these buys with the summer sale of Ki Sung Yeung for £6m (potentially rising to £8m) to Swansea. Such is Celtic’s depth in quality in the central midfield area in that they have sold a £6m player, a big fee in Scottish football numbers, and still haven’t missed him for even one minute. Ki struggled to cement a place in the Celtic starting eleven so his absence not being missed isn’t that big of a surprise.

In January, a survey was done for all European clubs to determine which had the most players on international duty throughout 2011. Celtic ended up fourth on the list with 68% of their squad going away for international duty. The only teams to have a higher ratio than Celtic were Real Madrid (70.8%), Manchester City (73.1%) and Barcelona (81%).

The youth system at Celtic has also graduated two very promising youngsters in the form of James Forrest and Marcus Fraser. Forrest in particular is a player who has attracted significant interest from down South and has 7 senior Scotland caps despite being only 21. Marcus Fraser is another promising player who put in a stand-out performance last season in the Europa League 3-1 home victory over Ligue 1 side Rennes. John Park also found highly rated young Tony Watt from Airdrie. 18-year-old Watt’s performances in the Next Gen series and in his appearances in the Celtic first team so far indicate that he is another gem that has been unearthed by Park for only £80,000. Watt also bagged the winner in Celtic’s victory over Barcelona, which, thanks to Park, shot the young man from obscurity to the name of everyone’s lips.

The biggest asset purchased through the talent scout is central midfielder Victor Wanyama. He was strongly linked to an £8m move away to England in the summer but nothing came to fruition. Recently, his stand-out performances in the Champions League have earned him even more admirers and talks of a contract extension with Celtic have stalled. Amid this interest from other parties, Neil Lennon has publicly said Wanyama will only be sold for a fee of £25m. Although Lennon’s figure is obviously slight exaggeration, his point is that whoever wants to purchase Wanyama will have to fork out a considerable fee, somewhere in the region of £12-£15m, an offer too big to refuse. He is tied down to Celtic for another two and a half years so there is no panic to sell him, but of course, Celtic want to maximize profit and they have to strike while the iron is hot. Such is the case with the transfer model they are now undertaking. The £900,000 fee Celtic paid for Wanyama is one of the bargains of the last five years and at still only 21 years old, he has the potential to become a world-class midfield in one of Europe’s top clubs. Wanyama’s fee has done nothing but increase since he joined Celtic and his two outstanding performances (including one goal) against Barcelona serve only to consolidate the hype surrounding the young midfielder.

Celtic’s Wanyama up against Benfica’s Enzo Perez

With the selling model that Celtic is undertaking, there is always going to be signings that just won’t work. The two most notable of the past two years are Efrain Juarez and Mohamed Bangura. Juarez started his Celtic career strongly but for reasons unknown outside of the club, he stopped being part of the first team and was quickly loaned out to Real Zaragoza before disappearing back to Mexico. Bangura on the other hand is now on loan at AIK and has looked clumsy at best in his games for Celtic. It is worth noting that Bangura also came with a healthy recommendation from Celtic legend Henrik Larsson who had watched him play for AIK in his native Sweden. These slight disappointments however act as only a minuscule blip ion in an otherwise immensely successful transfer model for Celtic so far, with the bigger financial rewards still to be reaped. At the moment, Park has sought out a team capable of matching the strongest teams in the world for only £7m. To put this into perspective  Barcelona paid £15m for Alex Song, the entire Celtic first eleven that beat Barcelona came to less than half of that (roughly £5.2m, including five free transfers). The fact that so many of these players have come good at Celtic is a testament to the strike rate of John Park’s scouting ability and judgement.

However, success does not go unnoticed and the nature of the beast means that with these performances in the Champions League from the Celtic players, people will start to shine a light in areas that were previously left in the dark. At the moment, John Park is rumored to have sparked interest in job offers in technical roles from West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. This comes as no surprise in that we now find ourselves in an age in which value is very rarely found in football and clubs fritter away millions after millions without ever seeming to move forward. A man with the talents and acumen of John Park can raise a club to the next level, and for this reason, he has become an invaluable commodity to so many of these clubs. He is the main architect of this Celtic squad and his reputation is certain only to rise in the foreseeable future as Celtic look a shoe-in to claim a spot in last 16 of the Champion League.

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  1. JD November 8, 2012
  2. Theo, New Zealand November 9, 2012
  3. Chris Hames November 11, 2012
  4. K.Hughes December 3, 2012

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