A fans favourite and a proven winner, Bobo Balde spent half of his Celtic career languishing on the sidelines, as Jules Brandon remembers
This summer, Celtic finally bid farewell to their Guinean defender Bobo Balde. His eight years at the club made him one of Celtic’s longest serving players of recent times, and one of the most successful, with ten medals to his name. He was a key member of the team that reached the 2003 UEFA Cup final (he was sent off in extra time), and the same season fans voted him Celtic Player of the Year.
Balde was never a polished performer. He couldn’t pass very well, and suffered concentration lapses, but he was dominant in the air, thunderous in the tackle and no defender in the SPL could match him for sheer terrifying presence. It earned him cult status among the Celtic fans, whose “Bobo’s gonnae get you!” chant became a menacing warning to opposition attackers.
It should have been enough for him to leave with tributes ringing in his ears. Instead, the only sound likely to accompany his exit is the sigh of relief echoing through the Parkhead offices. The club’s hierarchy has been trying to get shot of Big Bobo, and his hefty weekly wage, for almost four years. They tried every tactic to get him to budge – relegating him to the reserves, banning him from the first-team dressing room, forcing him to train with the Under-19s. Such was their desire to see the back of him that at one point, it was even mooted that he should train in France. In doughty centre-half fashion, Bobo stood his ground, stoically accepting whatever was asked of him, while accumulating around £5 million for doing not very much. Remarkably, the Guinean retained the affection of a large section of Celtic’s support, perhaps in recognition that he was not the main culprit in the fiasco.
In January 2005, Balde looked to be on his way to Middlesbrough but, panicked by his leaky defence, Celtic boss Martin O’Neill offered him a new contract, worth a reported £28,000 a week over nearly five years and with a get-out clause should he find himself a better deal elsewhere. Presented with this, Bobo not surprisingly agreed.
Six months later, Gordon Strachan replaced O’Neill and decided Bobo was not his type of defender. Gary Caldwell arrived on a free from Hibs, consigning Bobo to the fringes. In the summer of 2007, another exit opportunity emerged. Roy Keane, who played briefly with Balde at Parkhead, wanted to take him to Sunderland for £1.5m. However, Bobo declared himself determined to stay and fight for his place. There were points when his resolve looked to be cracking. In October 2007 he complained: “I don’t want to be at a club where I’m not wanted, but I want to make clear it is rubbish to say I’m just taking the money… I’ve been told that I’m not in the top two defenders and that I’m down to sixth on the list.” That was probably an optimistic assessment.
Celtic’s CEO, Peter Lawwell, who has been widely lauded for modernising the club’s financial and administrative operations, appeared to have met his match in Balde. When Birmingham City declared themselves ready to sign Balde and match his wages, Lawwell summoned him to his office to convince him to accept. Balde though, refused to budge. “You,” he told Lawwell, “are chief executive of Celtic Football Club, I am the chief executive of Bobo Balde.”
Balde had not actually been opposed to the move, but objected to signing a confidentiality agreement. Exactly what beans he might be tempted to spill is unclear, though he is understood to have kept a meticulous file on all of his dealings with the club.
Despite playing just four first-team games in the last two years – at an estimated cost of £728,000 a pop – Balde, now 33, continues to attract admirers, notably Alex McLeish, who has now made another bid to bring him to Birmingham. Wolves have also been circling, while at time of going to press Burnley have just tabled an offer. As a free agent, Bobo will doubtless be able to negotiate himself a good deal.
It is tempting to portray Balde as just another cash-grabbing mercenary, a (slightly) poorer man’s Winston Bogarde. However, he has apparently used large portions of his fortune to aid regeneration in Guinea. And the Under-19s squad at Celtic also benefited from his largesse when he funded their Christmas party.
Balde admits he will be sad to leave Scotland. “It’s true that I was settled in Glasgow and I appreciated life there. But I knew I would leave one day. That day has arrived.” He may yet have the last laugh, with reports that he may be due a loyalty bonus.
From WSC 271 September 2009