Lennon exit hastened by feeling of being trapped
Lack of a real challenge and inadequate transfer budget left departing boss with nowhere left to go at Celtic
Word that Neil Lennon and Celtic were close to a parting of the ways after his four years in charge had bubbled under in the Scottish game for a week or so, but the timing of the news of his departure yesterday evidently caught the club off guard.
The first confirmation came shortly before noon from the manager's agent, yet it took Celtic until late in the afternoon to acknowledge as much on their official website. Meanwhile, the bookies had installed Hoops legend – and Lennon's former team-mate – Henrik Larsson, as favourite to succeed him.
It's understood, however, that the Swede is not the front-runner, with Malky Mackay, Owen Coyle, Paul Lambert and David Moyes – whose odds were cut from 10/1 to 7/2 during the day – all being considered. Whoever is appointed – and according to the Celtic website, Lennon will have an input – will take charge of a club currently without effective rivals in the Scottish title race, but expected by supporters to make the Champions League group stage at least.
But the surprise of Lennon's decision to quit Celtic is that it did not happen a year ago. Over a drink after a football awards dinner in Glasgow in May 2013, the Hoops manager confided his frustration to this correspondent when he said: "What is there left to do here?"
He was speaking after a season in which Celtic had cantered to the Scottish title without hindrance from Rangers, who had plunged through the divisions after their financial calamity under Craig Whyte.
But the ennui of a foregone conclusion on the main domestic front had been offset by a spectacular progress in the 2012-13 Champions League group stage, which had seen Celtic qualify for the last 16.
En route they had taken Barcelona to the final kick of the ball before losing the decisive goal in a 2-1 defeat in the Nou Camp, but extracted revenge with an epochal victory over the Catalan giants in the east end of Glasgow.
Celtic got no further than the first knockout round, where they lost to Juventus – but neither did Manchester United or Arsenal, while Chelsea and Manchester City had been eliminated at the group stage.
The crucial difference for Lennon, though, was that he had been operating on a minute fraction of the resources available to any of the four English clubs and he knew that not only would it be difficult to repeat the feat, but even to have the opportunity to do so he would have to steer Celtic past three hazardous Champions League qualifiers in the summer.
He duly delivered again, but the pressure had taken a toll. More than once Lennon disclosed that he had endured sleepless nights because of the consequences of failure. "I'm not saying the group stage is a stroll, but for a club like us to get there is an achievement in itself," he told me.
"What had me up in the middle of the night during the qualifiers was the knowledge that we are expected to get through them, but that it only takes one slip-up and the consequences for a club like this are huge.
"When we're playing in a league without Rangers, European football until Christmas at least – and preferably the Champions League – is vital for the supporters, the players and everybody around the place."
Lennon's fears came very close to materialising in last summer's Champions League play-off against Shakhter Karagandy when – after losing 2-0 in Kazakhstan – they squeezed through 3-2 on aggregate at home, where the decisive goal was scored by James Forrest in injury- time.
Celtic were drawn with Barcelona again in a classic 'group of death' which also included AC Milan and Ajax – the first Champions League section ever to have featured four former European Cup winners. Lennon fretted that they had been damaged by the sales of Victor Wanyama and top scorer Gary Hooper and his belief that they had not been replaced, a fear that was endorsed by a 6-0 thrashing in the Nou Camp and a 3-0 home defeat by Milan.
Although he met Celtic's majority shareholder Dermot Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell last month to discuss plans for the next three years, Lennon has been deeply concerned that the club is likely to lose centre-back Virgil Van Dijk, his best signing of the last year, along with Fraser Forster, now that the goalkeeper has achieved World Cup squad status – and that the available transfer budget will not cover adequate replacements.
Lawwell can be expected to offer a robust defence of Celtic's budget when he speaks to the media, probably today. That aside, Lennon was also put out by the lack of interest from clubs in England – Everton being a case in point after Moyes' departure – and the feeling that he was caught between two powerful and contradictory factors.
One is the impression in England and elsewhere – much greater since Rangers fell out of the equation – that the Celtic job is not pressurised. The other is the burden of expectation along with the sheer intensity of the events Lennon has had to endure in his spell in charge at Celtic Park.
He has been the subject of hate crimes which included death threats daubed close to his family home, bullets and makeshift bombs intercepted in the post and an assault by a spectator who emerged from the crowd at Tynecastle during a game against Hearts.
While he was manager, controversy over a penalty decision against Dundee United forced a comprehensive rewrite of the SFA's rulebook plus Scotland's first ever referees' strike and importation of foreign match officials.
He also came within 45 minutes of losing his job at Kilmarnock in October 2011 when Celtic were 3-0 down at half-time and 15 points behind Rangers in the title race, before a late comeback set him on course for his first Scottish title triumph. Those who suppose he has had an easy time of it in Scotland might ask themselves if any Premier League manager has had to encounter anything even faintly comparable.
Lennon is as distinctive, combative and controversial a figure as Scottish football has ever seen. The irony is that if he ever takes charge in the Premier League, he is liable to feel that he has moved to the quiet life. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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