Lennon beaten but unbowed
Celtic fans unite in support of boss as title hopes finally end
This wasn’t so much a football match as a rally in support of Celtic’s beleaguered manager.
In a break with tradition, the teams walked out to the strains of Labi Siffre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong’, which was dedicated to Neil Lennon.
Of the many banners unfurled in support of him, one read: ‘Lennon – unbowed, unbeaten: legend’. The circumstances surrounding the Irishman – the threats, assaults and victimisation – have, in an odd way, strengthened his position.
Even if Motherwell were to spring a surprise in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final, Lennon has such backing from the fans that he could become the first Celtic manager since Tommy Burns in 1996 to endure a trophy-less season – coupled with an early European exit – and still expect to keep his job.
That remains unlikely and, in any case, Lennon can justifiably argue that he has significantly improved on the shambles bequeathed to him by his predecessor, Tony Mowbray.
Unfortunately for those home fans hoping for a last-minute reprieve, Rangers were three ahead at Kilmarnock before Celtic mustered their first effort on target, a rising drive from Georgios Samaras which debutant goalkeeper Lee Hollis pushed away.
With a view to the Hampden showpiece, Motherwell fielded an under-strength starting XI, but Celtic initially made hard work of breaking them down.
Hollis saved bravely at the feet of Gary Hooper and Scott Brown fired wide from the rebound before Hooper broke the deadlock with a toe-poke from eight yards after the visitors failed with three attempts to clear their lines.
Celtic secured the points five minutes from the interval when Samaras took advantage of ball-watching from Gavin Gunning to convert Charlie Mulgrew's driven cross.
By then the outcome was irrelevant, but the home players were determined to end on a high and substitute Shaun Maloney extended their lead with an emphatic finish after slaloming through the Motherwell rearguard.
It speaks volumes that Hollis was the visitors' best performer, denying Samaras a hat-trick. However, he was helpless when another substitute, Paddy McCourt, drilled the ball behind him from six yards after Samaras had diverted Mark Wilson's cross into his path.
Stuart McCall's team will be a different proposition at the Scottish national stadium. It became increasingly obvious yesterday that their primary ambition was to avoid injury, but even so they will not have wanted to be on the receiving end of this scoreline.
The home fans stayed behind at the final whistle to serenade Lennon with a rousing rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. For his part, the manager thanked them for their support.
"It's been a great source of comfort and inspiration, really; not just to me but to the rest of the backroom staff, the board and certainly the players," he said. "For me, this isn't the end -- this is just the beginning."
That statement brought the house down. The cheers which greeted his announcement were greater than those which had heralded the team's goals.
"Today was a disappointment but there's still one piece of silverware to go for and the players will be giving everything to get a reward for their efforts. They've played with style and panache all season.
"We as a club have nothing to reproach ourselves for. The board, the supporters and the players have handled a lot of issues with great dignity." (© Independent News Service)