Celtic stars have gone soft, says caretaker boss Lennon
NEIL LENNON confessed yesterday that he shook with nerves when offered the job of caretaker manager of Celtic. Now he wants to shake the underperforming players inherited from Tony Mowbray out of being what he candidly described as the "soft touches'' who cost the former manager his job with an abject display in the 4-0 defeat by St Mirren on Wednesday night.
Kilmarnock come to Celtic Park today intent on further shredding the raw nerves exposed in Paisley, and Lennon is keen to make the most of his chance. "In my mind I'm the Celtic manager until I'm told otherwise, he said. "I didn't want the job in these circumstances but every crisis throws up an opportunity so I've got to make the most of it.
"The most experienced managers can come here and not do as well as expected. Pep Guardiola has done all right at Barcelona, so if anyone is an example, he is.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for me and yes, I do want the job for keeps. I was shaking with nerves for a good couple of hours yesterday, but now I'm settling into it.
"I've played the game for 20 years, I've been here for 10 and I know the culture of the club and the culture of the country and I know the footballing culture, so there's nothing here that will spring any surprises for me.
"The supporters expect us to be challenging for the League and winning football matches and I've got to transmit that to the football players. There's a softness about us and I want to eradicate that -- we're mentally not as strong as we should be.
"People may say that the Rangers players are not as talented as the players we have, but they have a good work ethic, a good team ethic and they don't know when they are beaten. I want to instil that into us, but the bottom line is winning games, by hook or by crook.
"I want us to be hard to beat. I want them to go out and give everything for the shirt and I will try and make them realise what the shirt means for so many people.
"Celtic are one of the best-supported teams in the world and have great supporters who have suffered this season. The players know that. They have been told that and it is up to me to get them winning."
In normal circumstances Kilmarnock would hold few fears for Celtic, who beat them comprehensively 3-0 when the sides met in a Scottish Cup quarter-final two weeks ago.
However, until Mowbray's players went ahead Killie had the better of the tie, with Allan Russell hitting crossbar and post. They have already ruined one Celtic debut in the past couple of months, when they won 1-0 in Ayrshire in Robbie Keane's first game for the Parkhead club.
"We're not going there to make it a great day for Neil Lennon," said Jimmy Calderwood, the Kilmarnock manager, who nevertheless expects a backlash from players whose pride is -- or should be -- stung.
"No disrespect to Tony but I would think some of them will react like that," Calderwood added. "Neil will have his own ideas, but I don't think it makes it any easier.
"He's Celtic through and through, he's a wonderful servant to the club, fanatical about his football. I don't think Kilmarnock have got such a good record there, but I have won there a few times with Aberdeen and Dunfermline and drawn a few times, too."
In a further twist to the week's events, Kilmarnock were sucked deeper into the relegation zone by St Mirren's victory and their own defeat at home to Hamilton Academical, results that saw the Paisley side swap places in the table with Calderwood's players, who are now second bottom.
"Up until Wednesday's game, although we were getting beaten, we were doing all right," said Calderwood. "We'd played four of the top five teams, but Wednesday was a massive disappointment. We were poor, we were very, very poor and that was annoying."
One feature of today's game that will be noted is the size of the crowd. Celtic could scarcely muster 30,000 for the visit of St Johnstone last week and Lennon made no bones about a plea to the missing 25,000 season ticket holders or the other fans who found match days less than compelling during Mowbray's brief tenure.
"Please come back," said Lennon, who has invited his former Hoops colleague, Johan Mjallby to assist him over the next few weeks. "Get behind the team, get behind Johan and myself, and we will try and instil some pride, desire and will to win in to the club that we love.
"We are all trying to pull in the same direction. Up until the St Mirren game the team had done okay. I don't know where that result came from but that level of performances is unacceptable.
"We spoke to the players this morning and made things pretty clear about what is expected of them between now and the end of the season."
Kilmarnock have a full squad to choose from, because Frazer Wright has completed the suspension that kept him out of the defeat by Hamilton, but Lennon has been bequeathed a slew of casualties.
It was no help to Mowbray that Glenn Loovens, Shaun Maloney and Thomas Rogne were all on the treatment table. Lennon will have to do without them as well.
However, Scott Brown is back from suspension and the captain will add a much-needed combativeness to Celtic's midfield. He was certainly sharp when it came to Dougie McDonald, the referee who sent him off against Rangers.
Asked if he was surprised that McDonald would be in charge of Celtic again so quickly, Brown said: "I bet he's glad. The referee is the referee -- he has got to do his job and I have got to do my job but hopefully he does a better job this time than he did the last time."
As for Lennon, whose appointment is on a game-by-game basis, the Northern Irishman mused: "It might be the shortest managerial career ever, but I had to take it.
"Tomorrow could be a great day for the players or it could be a tough day -- but if it is, they will have to show character to get through. It's difficult to turn things around in a short time but that's how managers earn their money." (© Daily Telegraph, London)