Neil Lennon’s final season at Celtic was one of the great managerial catastrophes. It was above all an object lesson in the perils of having it too easy for too long.
When the season began, few managers looked in a more enviable position than the Armagh man. Not only did Celtic seem nailed on for another title, having had 13 points to spare over Rangers at last season’s premature end, but victory would complete a record breaking 10 in a row. Lennon would go down in history.
The first two months did little to suggest this season would be any different from the previous nine as Celtic won eight of their first nine league games, scoring 27 goals and conceding just five. The champions seemed in rude health going into the first Old Firm derby of the season on October 2.
The 2-0 home defeat by Rangers that day and the visitors’ clear superiority served notice that Celtic were in a real title fight against a team which had itself won nine of its first 11 league games. But it was what happened next which revealed the trouble Celtic were in.
A similar home loss last season led to a title-winning run of 10 wins in 11 matches. This time Celtic seemed to fall apart in the wake of defeat. The next six weeks saw just one win in four league matches, a pair of 4-1 trouncings by Sparta Prague in the Europa League and an excruciating 2-0 home defeat by little Ross County in the League Cup.
By the time Celtic scraped a 1-1 away draw with St Johnstone on December 6, Lennon’s goose already looked cooked. The League Cup defeat prompted demonstrations outside Celtic Park which turned violent.
The manager himself admitted that he “could understand,” why people were calling for him to go, but insisted it would only “take a flick of the switch,” to make things better.
A run of four league wins without a goal conceded and Celtic’s only European win of the season, 3-2 over Lille, ended 2020 on a more encouraging note. But everything fell to bits at the start of January when a 1-0 defeat by Rangers was followed by a disastrous team trip to Dubai.
With Scotland in lockdown, the training jaunt was the height of foolishness, something acknowledged by Celtic Chief Executive Peter Lawwell when he “profoundly apologised” after they returned. Photos of Celtic players drinking beer by a swimming pool made things look worse, even before Christopher Jullien tested positive for Covid-19 after their return.
That meant 13 players, along with Lennon, had to isolate and miss Celtic’s draws with Hibernian and Livingston. The manager then brought things into the realm of high farce by seeming to imply the quarantine requirements might be part of a political conspiracy against Celtic by Nicola Sturgeon’s government.
A bizarre self-pitying press conference, where Lennon complained “We had a little drink in the afternoon on a day off, completely allowed, no law breaking — yet we come back to this barrage of absolute hypocrisy,” made both manager and club look ridiculous.
The draw against Hibernian began a run of five league games with just one win. It was surprising when Lennon survived the 2-1 home defeat by St Mirren on January 30, but last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Ross County was the last straw.
Celtic’s reign, like the Berlin Wall, went from seeming impregnable and eternal one minute to crumbling with surprising ease the next. The buck largely stops with the manager. Despite his success during his first spell with Celtic, Lennon seemed an odd choice to replace Brendan Rodgers, given that he’d subsequently spent a disastrous spell at Bolton Wanderers, winning just 18 out of 79 games, before being sacked by Hibernian after a player revolt.
Yet those making the appointment may have felt Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football was such that it didn’t matter who was manager. The selection of Lennon epitomised the complacency which would be punished so spectacularly this season.
Despite all the blather about 10 in a row, a new record would have had to be accompanied by a sizable asterisk.
Four of the nine titles were won when Rangers’ relegation to the lower divisions meant Celtic were given a virtual walkover in the absence of the only opposition with sufficient resources to challenge them.
The uncompetitive nature of the league without Rangers is shown by the fact that even though Celtic have been pretty dire all season, they’re still 12 points clear of third-placed Hibernian. Exclude Rangers from the equation and this would be another glorious title-winning campaign. Only since the arrival of Steven Gerrard have Celtic encountered any kind of challenge to their dominance. When that challenge became serious, they couldn’t cope.
Celtic’s players have been as unimpressive as their manager. The club’s two most expensive close-season signings have flopped with Greek ’keeper Vasilis Barkas making a string of mistakes and Swiss striker Albian Ajeti scoring just six goals in 27 games. Another expensive striker, Poland’s Patryk Klimala, has just three goals from 27 since joining in January of last year and at 35, midfielder Scott Brown has clearly run out of gas after an outstanding career.
But one player above all has been emblematic of Celtic’s disastrous slump and has been lampooned to an extent unusual even in the unkind world of Scottish football. Poor Shane Duffy. Poor, poor, consistently poor Shane Duffy.
It’s tough for Irish football fans to see our international stalwart become Scotland’s great national joke. But though his selection as fall guy seemed somewhat unfair earlier in the season, things went from bad to worse for the Derry man as the season went on.
Duffy initially seemed a great addition for Celtic. Anyone who’s followed his progress would have imagined he’d prosper in Scotland. Yet he’s spent the season being run ragged by strikers of a calibre far below some of those he’s handled with ease at international level.
Given Duffy’s perpetual honesty and courage in the Irish jersey, it’s been hard to see him struggle like this. But in the long run, when the mockery has died down, he may be seen as the biggest victim of Lennon’s dysfunctional farewell.
Should the Celtic Board, as has been rumoured, favour making the appointment of caretaker manager John Kennedy permanent, it will indicate that they’ve learned nothing from this season. It would be a ‘aren’t we doing grand as we are’ appointment like the one which put Lennon back in the hot seat.
But nine titles on the trot masked the steady decline at Celtic, indicated by the club’s awful recent record in Europe. In the last seven seasons, Celtic have been knocked out of the Champions League by Maribor, Malmo, AEK Athens, CFR Cluj and Ferencvaros.
No-one’s suggesting that something like the run to the 2003 Europa League final is a realistic goal. Even a repeat of Lennon’s finest achievement as manager, the 2012-13 season run to the Champions League last 16 which included a famous win over Barcelona, may not be feasible.
But when teams such as Ferencvaros, Rennes, Midtjylland and Basaksehir can make it to the Champions League group stages, Celtic should have done better than getting there twice in the last seven attempts.
Given that Kennedy, as an assistant to both Lennon and Brendan Rodgers, was implicated in these European failures, he hardly seems likely to improve that record. Celtic should go for someone like Frank Lampard, who won Chelsea a Champions League place last season and a spot in the knock-out stages this term, or Steve Clarke, who’s just qualified Scotland for a first major tournament in 23 years
To win back the Scottish title Celtic merely need Rangers to take their eye off the ball. The departure of Gerrard for the Premier League might be enough to change the balance of power once more. But winning in Scotland offers little glory. Celtic have always been largely defined by European heroics. Without them domestic success rings pretty hollow at this stage. The most glorious of all European exploits was the 1967 triumph of the Lisbon Lions, who also played their part in Celtic’s first nine in a row from 1965 to 1974. There’s no comparison between that nine in a row and the run Rangers have just halted.
Back then Celtic had to see off the likes of a Rangers team good enough to win the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972, a Kilmarnock side which reached the semi-finals of the 1967 Fairs (later Uefa) Cup and a Dunfermline team who made the semis of the 1969 Cup Winners Cup.
That was a golden era for Scottish football and Jock Stein’s team needed to be great to dominate it. They didn’t deserve to be wiped from the record books by a team winning titles in an age of brass.
The failure to win 10 in a row may be good for the soul of not just Scottish football, but Celtic too.