Neil Lennon: Given Just A Little More Time
Lennon outstripped my expectations of him when he first took the job in March 2010, as a caretaker replacement for Tony Mowbray, under whom he’d served as reserve team boss, having previously been a first-team coach. I thought making his temporary appointment permanent, as Celtic did that June, was wrong. Two-and-a-half years later, Celtic were beating Barcelona. And I sensed I might have been wrong.
I was uneasy again when Lennon caretaker-replaced the grubbily-departed Brendan Rodgers in February 2019. But again, he outstripped my expectations. He guided Celtic safely to their eighth Scottish title in-a-row and to a third consecutive domestic trophy treble with a Scottish Cup final win over Hearts, that May, minutes after which his temporary appointment again became permanent. A year-and-a-half later, Celtic were losing to Ross County. And I sensed I might, to quote 1970s Dick Emery character, Gaylord, have got it wrong again.
Celtic have been largely wretched this season, in victory, draw and defeat. Defensively they have been entirely wretched, which has undermined confidence throughout the team. And whether it is Lennon’s or his ‘backroom’ team’s responsibility, the ultimate responsibility for organising defensive units is his. So the buck, if not opposing attacks, stops there.
Celtic’s concession of embarrassing goals during Lennon’s second spell included the very first one, in his first game in recharge, at Hearts. Keeper Scott Bain overhit a five-yard pass to defender Kristoffer Ajer, who conceded a penalty in his desperation to solve a defensive ‘situation’ in which Hearts had no creative input.
You’d also call many of this season’s errors ‘schoolboy,’ except that schools would sue…AND WIN. In October, my dad shouted “just defend” at the telly when Celtic went 3-2 up at Aberdeen on 78 minutes. And despite barely knowing one end of a football from another, I knew they would not win doing that. After all, when midfielders concede penalties late in EACH half, and a defender, bought for his ability to find Row Z when necessary, can’t even find touch, let alone Row A, even tactical-illiterates can see problems.
Researching this catalogue of defensive calamities has been painful. Jozo Simunovic underhitting an eight-yard backpass by seven yards against Copenhagen. Christopher Jullien’s inability to handle Rory McKenzie AND Nicke Kabamba at Kilmarnock, other than to manhandle Kabamba to concede a penalty and, later, very nearly a second goal. Hatem Elhamed’s woeful misjudgement of the flight of the ball against Ferencvaros. Shane Duffy forgetting that Rangers’ Conor Goldson was no longer a Brighton defensive colleague.
Stills of Sparta’s equaliser in Prague seemed to show three unmarked attackers right in front of goal, with Celtic’s defence stood looking. I thought it was as misleading as the famous photo of six Belgians lined-up looking awestruck by Diego Maradona. But the video footage revealed the most animated Celtic defenders were those craning their necks to get a better view. Stills of Hibernian’s penalty rebound goal last month didn’t lie either. Three defenders WERE stood looking from the edge of the box as Jamie Murphy won the two-horse race to the ball with Ajer after Scott Bain’s fine penalty save.
Oh for a Virgil Van Dijk, they cry (for the purposes of this joke, anyway). Although Dick Van Dyke might have had a more acute sense of danger and better limb co-ordination under a dropping ball than some current Celtic defenders… in Diagnosis Murder in the 1990s, when Van Dyke was in his 60s.
In fairness, Celtic’s defensive frailties pre-date Lennon’s second spell. In the first half of the afore-mentioned Hearts game, Dedryck Boyata nearly handed a goal on a plate to Hearts’ Steven Naismith, with an error straight from the Rodgers school of Celtic defending, woefully misplacing a pass in his own third of the pitch. At Easter Road, in December 2017, Celtic lost the ball THIRTEEN times in their own third, against a Hibernian side managed by…Neil Lennon. A week later, Celtic lost 4-0 at Hearts, defending similarly.
Even Celtic’s (domestic) ‘Invincibles’ were quite vincible, defensively. Their 5-2 win at St, Johnstone in February 2017 is best remembered for the 24-pass build-up to Celtic’s fifth goal. But Celtic were 2-1 down at half-time, having shown an alarming inability to deal with crosses, which was alarming to varying degrees all season. Celtic shipped hockey scores under Rodgers in Europe. And though Lennon’s European record was impressive the first time around, Celtic are now embarrassingly exposed in the Europa League. The gods alone know what Paris Saint-Germain, who won their two 2017 Champions League group games against Celtic by a total of 12-1, would do to them now.
Also, Celtic’s problems are amplified by the threat posed to an historic tenth Scottish title in-a-row by defensively-sound Rangers, who have at last brought home their fine European form under manager Steven Gerrard. They have, of course, done so, by spending money they didn’t have (cumulative losses of £77m since 2012) and money which wasn’t theirs (£9.7m owed in “social security and other taxes,” as at 30th June 2020).
It’s how the old Rangers died. And Celtic fans have increasingly cited this as an excuse the further adrift Celtic get from the new Rangers. But Scottish football’s business model is too dependent on Rangers and Celtic for the two clubs to be hemmed in by financial regulation. And the clubs are too financially inter-dependent to press for such regulation. Hence Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell’s complicity in allowing Scottish club football to eschew it. Although the silence of senior clubs generally spreads that complicity around.
But none of that should make Lennon’s culpability job-saving. He has a number of full international defenders to call on, which only exacerbates the sheer awfulness of the errors. And whatever the impact of Lawwell and Rangers’ diametrically opposing financial strategies, a defensively-sound Celtic would still be in the title race. Indeed, with ANY defensive composure and organisation at Aberdeen and Hibs, woeful Celtic and wonderful Rangers would not be worlds apart.
Lennon’s other managerial failings are becoming even more obvious. We do not yet know if David Turnbull is the answer to the creativity questions Celtic’s performances have posed. But that was why he was bought. And Lennon should himself know by now. Celtic’s list of absentees ruled out league victory over Rangers in October. Sky commentator Ian Crocker tried to downplay it by rushing through the names, which only highlighted its severity. But it did not excuse the manner of the defeat. It is hard to see a man so passionate about football and Celtic (Lennon, not Crocker) transmit so little of that passion to his players.
Yet Lennon did not deserve to be told to “get tae fcuk” by protestors during the ugly scenes outside Celtic Park after last Sunday week’s League Cup loss to Ross County. Celtic fans have delighted in and condemned Rangers’ fans overblown reactions to their team’s setbacks, especially when the crowds have turned ugly (uglier). Many have, creditably, been as condemnatory about last Sunday week. But any other reaction would have been hypocrisy.
The protest was clearly self-defeating. The club said that it had “obviously left our players shaken,” which in one way might have been part of the protestors’ plan, such as it was. But I tweeted that “anyone tasked with any decision” on Lennon’s future would be “the outright OPPOSITE of persuaded by it.” And Celtic’s desire not to be seen to give in to the mob, has indeed dictated their public stance ever since.
Promising a full investigation, they stated immediately after the protests that: “for players and a management team who have given so much and have delivered 11 consecutive trophies to require an escort from Celtic Park, while being targeted with missiles, is simply unacceptable.” Lawwell added his own statement, for self-justification purposes (“there is no complacency whatsoever,” he protested too much methinks). And he also noted that “Neil, the players and the backroom staff” had “already done so much for the club.”
But not even the protestors would protest that, if they thought about it (or had anything to think with). Most of the “11 consecutive trophies” were “delivered” by others. But Lennon helped deliver TWENTY trophies as a player, captain and manager. And there is plenty more to admire about him.
He was an articulate, thoughtful BBC pundit (labelled “the new Alan Hansen” after his stint at the 2014 World Cup). And he wears his Irishness on his proverbial sleeve, and the Irish flag on his actual track-suit collar for years. He was articulate, thoughtful and powerful two years ago when calling out anti-Irish racism and shaming the press on the issue. “It’s pretty poor, all this ‘I bring it on myself.’ There was an effigy saying ‘hang Neil Lennon.’ Did I bring that on myself? I’m asking you,” he said as the press pack audibly squirmed. “You call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism.”
So, as blogger Phil MacGiolla Bhain noted, Lennon “is a good man and he deserves some respect.” Some, multiplied by every one of those twenty trophies, I would suggest. But past performance is not indicative of future results, as the saying goes. And legendary status, to which many have elevated Lennon, should not be insulation from the consequences of poor present performance.
Lennon’s current inability to get the best out of his players has frustrated me hugely after recent weeks reporting on hurling managers producing teams greater than the sum of their parts. I recently watched Waterford’s hurlers power to an All-Ireland semi-final with many players who had disastrous 2018s and 2019s. It made Celtic’s labours at Hibs that same afternoon all the more galling.
This cannot continue. And under Lennon, there is no sign that it won’t. He said many of the right things after the St Johnstone draw on Sunday, accurately pinpointing Celtic’s problems with tempo, penetration et al. But these have been obvious to see on radio since they drew at Kilmarnock almost exactly FOUR months ago. And despite all Lennon’s changes of formation and personnel, nothing AT ALL has changed,
The “right thing” to do did present itself. Celtic play Hearts in the Scottish Cup final on December 20th. It is currently hard to make them the favourites they would be on good form. But if Lennon and the board could have agreed “by mutual consent” to make the final his final game, it might have been the best way to get the best out of players who currently look incapable of beating a carpet. And he could have left with his first managerial domestic treble and Celtic completing a quadruple treble.
Instead, the board yesterday ‘clarified’ “their continuing support” for Lennon but said that support would continue only until “progress” is “reviewed” at an unspecified time “in the New Year” (Celtic visit Ibrox on January 2nd. By the way). The board also understood “the importance” of ten-in-a-row. But my inverted commas are doing some heavy lifting there, as the board cited “many” current players’ understanding of Lennon’s “method and approach,” which they have demonstrated by making ten-in-a-row more of a pipedream even since I began this article.
Such clarity as exists in that statement might serve a useful short-term purpose. Focussing unfocused player and management minds in a way which has clearly been lacking this season. But the above contradictions serve as reminders, like any were needed, that Celtic’s current problems run deeper than Neil Lennon and consistent clownshoe defending.
Still, Neil Lennon has proved me wrong twice before. And if he was to make it a hat-trick and deliver ten-in-a-row, that is an article I will thoroughly enjoy writing.