Celtic, the Brexit conundrum, and how the club can navigate it successfully

By Euan Davidson

March 11, 2021

This is a guest article on Brexit, work permits and Celtic by Conrad Gibbins. Conrad has a background in from a Sports Law and Policy. You can follow Conrad here @conradgfootball.

On 23 February, Neil Lennon eventually bowed out of his role as Manager, much to the relief of a majority of the fan base [Celtic FC]. This followed the announcement of Lawwell’s retirement and of the incoming CEO, Scottish Rugby supremo Dominic McKay [Celtic FC]

Largely, this has been received positively by Celtic fans, seeking an overhaul of the internal club structure. After the calamitous failure this season, it is important to make wholesale changes. Especially on the basis of a strategy that takes into account the impact on Scottish Football of the external political climate. 

Of course, the pandemic is clearly an influential external factor. Covid has had an impact on the club’s fortunes on and off the park. Brexit, however, has the potential to cause drastic changes to the recruitment structure and strategies at the club. 

Former Celtic boss Neil Lennon / (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Brexit: The GBE Framework

So what is the impact of Brexit on Celtic’s transfer strategy? Simply, Brexit has meant that the current framework for signing foreign players who do not have an automatic right to work in the UK, the Governing Body Endorsement Requirements (GBE), has been extended to EU nationals. 

The SFA published GBE is a points-based criterion that allows overseas players, senior and youth, to qualify for employment at clubs. If a player meets the necessary criteria (auto-pass or gaining over 15 points), the player is then eligible for apply for a work permit from the Home Office. The criteria considered for gaining points or an auto-pass include: 

  • international appearances;
  • domestic minutes played;
  • continental minutes played; and
  • investment

Further, a player meeting the GBE criteria, and qualifying for a Tier 2 work permit by the Home Office, will be granted a maximum of three years for their original contract. That’s with a maximum three years permitted additionally.

The issue for Scottish football is clear. Simply put, you receive lower points depending on the player’s national team. Or, the quality of the league they play in. For example, the Croatian First Football league (Band 3) and Swiss Super league and Greek Superleague (Band 4), are ranked low. Therefore non-international players would struggle to meet 15 points bracket. This makes it difficult for Celtic to cherry-pick quality players from the lesser known teams on the continent. 


The SFA Exceptions Panels remain available to Scottish clubs during the 2021 Summer transfer window. This ensures that clubs can appeal that certain players should receive endorsement, if they fail to meet GBE points. This is on the basis that they are of the highest calibre, or will contribute significantly to the development of the Scottish game. 

These GBE requirements have been published as recently as 2nd February 2021, after the SFA Joint Response Group confirmed the retention of the discretionary appeals panel to sign overseas players and there has been speculation that this will allow players to sign as freely as pre-Brexit, at least until summer 2021.

However, players from the EU will still face barriers to overcome in signing for British clubs, and the remit or criteria to which the discretionary appeal panels will accept players has yet to be fully understood. Certainly, Livingston’s David Martindale has recently explained the difficulties he has faced in gaining a work permit from the Home Office for on-loan French midfielder Djibril Diani, after receiving a GBE.

As such, optimism ahead of the Summer transfer window must be tempered with realism and an understanding that these measures are not a continuation of the past, as well as being very much temporary. 

Considering these practical implications of Brexit on Celtic’s recruitment policies, Celtic’s recruitment strategy must take into account the short and long-term impact of the GBE criteria on the state of the British transfer market. 

Van Dijk celebrates for Celtic / (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Player Transfers in a Brexit Context

The impact of Brexit means that important players in our past would not be applicable for a work permit. Players such as Van Dijk or Larsson would likely not qualify under the GBE framework. Never mind players like Boyata or Toljan.

Even with the Exceptions Panels, the criteria required for a player to qualify under the exceptions in unclear. That’s in much the same way the signing of Wanyama was in 2011. Furthermore, the three-year original contract limit for these players casts doubt over the ability to ensure players are signed as long-term assets with resale value. 

Therefore, it is critical that this is reflected in Celtic’s future transfer strategy to bolster the senior side. It is now crucial that Celtic exploit the UK market. In particular, Celtic’s transfer focus should lean toward young British talents at cut-prices, such as Ben Davies – the centre-back that Liverpool gazumped us to– or players with previous success at the club like Joe Ledley, Fraser Forster and, hopefully, Liam Shaw

Buy low, sell high?

Beyond the fact that this is strategically beneficial to the club, with the barriers caused by Brexit, the impact of reducing EU players from transferring to British clubs will likely increase the premium pricing of the top British talents.

With a dearth of overseas players joining English clubs, outside established internationals and those from top leagues, talented British players will be coveted by cash-rich English clubs. This approach may be the best avenue for Celtic to uphold the model of buy low, sell high.

It may be speculated that this shift in the market may have already been understood in Europe, particularly by clubs in the Bundesliga, with Leverkusen’s signings of Demarai Gray and Jeremie Frimpong, whilst Bayern Munich are reportedly on the cusp of signing Reading left-back Omar Richards.

Celtic academy graduate Stephen Welsh / (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Youth Players

A widely discussed issue in recent years has been the pathway from the academy to the first-team.

Many players have had only fleeting shots at staking their claim in the Celtic side. Unfortunately, most have failed to establish themselves. Kieran Tierney, Callum McGregor and James Forrest are rare exceptions.

In the past few years, there has been growing concern regarding Celtic’s inability to retain their highest regarded youth players. This is evidenced with a trend of outgoings such as Josh Adam (Manchester City), Liam Hughes (Liverpool), Liam Morrison and Barry Hepburn (both Bayern Munich) all seeing their progression best served elsewhere.

This has only been heightened by the recent rumours of Karamoko Dembele and Armstrong Oko-Flex earning moves away from the club. 

Cameron Harper has completed his move to New York Red Bulls. Celtic must learn from recent history and retain the greatest talents on the books or rue missed opportunities. The examples ex-Celtic youth players Andy Robertson and Aaron Hickey are testament to this.

A focus on the Academy

It is critical that this summer overhaul at Celtic prioritises rejuvenation of the academy. That entails focussing on nurturing players and providing a clear pathway to first team football. The future market could place even greater premium prices on British talent. That’s due to UK clubs being unable to buy foreign players between the ages of 16-18.

The demands for the best youth players from Britain could see a sharp rise in fees. Especially to clubs like Celtic, who are able to produce and market their youth system. 

Other clubs poaching of our best talent isn’t something Celtic fans would want. Also, it may be a strategic way to retain the model of low risk – high reward.

Additionally, this strategy is one that Celtic should attempt to exploit: casting our net into Scottish Football’s U-18 talent pool. By snapping up the best domestic youth talent, Celtic would benefit greatly on a financial and competitive level going forward. The development of players within our own academy has obvious benefits, too.

All in all, this summer will see grand changes made internally at the club. Also, there’ll be differences to the external markets to which we have relied so heavily in the past. The lows of this season must be utilised as a chance to reflect the club’s deficiencies. The club must strategise and modernise from this summer.

Celtic should be looking at the club model of a team like Bayern Munich as an example for operational structure. And, for savvy Brexit considered recruitment. 

READ MORE: More recruitment analysis? Click here.