When Brendan Rodgers left us in the lurch in February 2019 we were fortunate to be able to turn to a known quantity in Neil Lennon as interim boss. His first week was totemic, wins at Hearts and Hibs sent him on the way to the league and Scottish Cup, completing our third successive treble.
Neil took the job on condition he was considered for the permanent position. Celtic agreed, but I doubt they expected he would get the job. Ultimately, hopes of attracting another tier one candidate were dashed, as you and I occasionally observe, Never follow Sinatra. Few wanted to fill Brendan’s sunbed. The choice was between Neil and an earnest candidate who had won promotion to the Premier League in England, before relegation and unemployment. Neil was thought to be the better choice by the club for what would be a pressured season, but it is fair to say there was consternation when the announcement was made after that famous Cup Final win over Hearts.
The fourth consecutive treble, by now an expectation in some places, was not as easy as previous seasons. Newco’s loss-inflated side reached their first final in five years, got to the last 16 of the Europa League and led the domestic table in January. After defeat at Celtic Park to their challengers on 29 December, Celtic won every game for the remainder of the domestic season in league and cup. It was a fantastic response from a manager who looked to be on the ropes.
More impressively, a difficult Europa League group was won; famous victories over Lazio will live long in the memory. Last season, Europe also provided a portent of troubles ahead; an inferior Cluj, eliminated Celtic in the Champions League qualifiers, Copenhagen amazed themselves by doing the same in the Europa knockout rounds. Something was not right.
The capitulation this season has few precedents in our history. Despite retaining all key members of the side, ignominious defeats arrived in waves. Ferencvaros, Sparta Prague, twice, Ross County, twice, Newco at Celtic Park without making an attempt on goal. The Europa League group was an omnishambles until Neil rested players for a dead rubber against Lille and discovered talent waiting in the stands. This helped his cause but not his reputation.
I don’t buy the theory that were disproportionately affected by lack of fans, we made a series of missteps, in magnitude no greater than at the start of Brendan Rodgers last season in charge, but this time our challenger scarcely lost a goal, never mind a game.
With the direction of travel well established, there was a window to change manager in the autumn. When I argued the case to act for the good of Celtic’s season, I was counselled on the need to attract a manager who would work for a club who will sack a manager that’s never lost a trophy and had only lost one league game. There would be some takers, but not the ones you want. I believe this avenue was considered. Our options were John Kennedy as interim or a candidate miles out of their depth.
Among the many emotions Neil Lennon will feel today, I am sure a sense of disappointment in how he was treated by some among us. As well as giving us some great days, the worst that can be said about him is he made several bad football decisions. After what he has been through to be a Celtic player and manager, his treatment in places was atrocious.
I remember Jock Stein’s last four seasons, that produced only one league title, not to mention Gordon Strachan’s four, which resulted in only one league loss. Both were hounded by uncontained angry fans. The only difference now, is that the uncontained have social media to organise around. Neil, is in good company.
He will undoubtedly experience relief, but Neil has opened up previously on his fragilities, I suspect he will be haunted by regret, one of the more pernicious human emotions. However, as the Chairman of the Board once noted, ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but too few to mention.. The record shows’, NINE-IN-A-ROW.
Neil, thanks for Lazio, Rennes, the leagues and cups and the many euphoric victories. I cannot imagine how difficult on a personal level this has been, but the very best of health for the future. You will never walk alone.