Friday 24 May 2019

Ewan Murray: 'Lennon needs wriggle room in rebuilding job'

Neil Lennon wants his side to focus solely on beating Hearts in Saturday's Scottish Cup final. Photo: Getty
Neil Lennon wants his side to focus solely on beating Hearts in Saturday's Scottish Cup final. Photo: Getty

Ewan Murray

Celtic's retention of Scotland's Premiership, with two games to spare, makes a mockery of the notion - prevalent after Rangers won an Old Firm game on December 29 - that their domestic dominance might end any time soon.

The rush to frame a title race - involving Celtic and Rangers only, of course - remains a desperately predictable business. Celtic remain, by a considerable distance, the best team in Scotland, with more than enough resources to ensure that continues.

To many, praising Celtic for winning the league, accomplished with their 3-0 win at Aberdeen yesterday, is akin to congratulating a 40-year-old for tying his own shoelaces. Yet this campaign has had its challenges, primarily the sharp exit of Brendan Rodgers to Leicester in late February.

The season opened with Rodgers's unhappiness over recruitment, which manifested itself in a grim mood not prevalent around Celtic since before the former Liverpool manager's arrival.

Rodgers withdrew his petted lip but it was clear there would be dugout change at Celtic before long. Dermot Desmond, Celtic's leading shareholder, does not take kindly at all to rabble-rousing.

Under the recent guidance of Neil Lennon (below), Celtic did not wobble to any extent that matters. The Scottish Cup final against Hearts is an opportunity to complete a clean sweep for a third season in succession. It is a sign of Celtic's position that draws are viewed with disdain.

Since Rodgers left, Celtic have not lost a domestic fixture. The delay to their official crowning as champions owed something to Rangers finally putting together a winning run, when it really did not count.

Lennon has been candid about the difficulty of inheriting a team when, owing to accustomed successes, any slip-up will be heavily criticised. His position is guaranteed only until the summer. He knows this business too well to assume he will be handed a long-term contract but it would be a surprise if he is not retained.

Rodgers, a blue-chip manager, was pulled towards Celtic for emotional reasons. Ultimately, even that was not sufficient to mask frustrations regarding the club's inability - or unwillingness - to coax a certain calibre of player towards league games at Hamilton and St Mirren. Celtic could easily again pay a managerial salary in excess of £2m per year but in practice that brings associated strain.

Lennon's recruitment record from his first spell as manager (Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper, Fraser Forster, et al) should be important here, as must his proven ability to negotiate hazardous Champions League qualifying ties. The two matters are linked: Celtic need to be in position to fire at least on most cylinders long before their next domestic season begins. Champions League revenue keeps every other Scottish club at arm's length. There is little excuse for them not being prepared for early European challenges given leeway in Scotland, which raises questions over Rodgers' legacy.

Celtic face a bigger summer rebuild than is generally recognised. Jeremy Toljan, Filip Benkovic, Oliver Burke and Timothy Weah will return to parent clubs after loans. Dedryck Boyata is expected to leave under freedom of contract and the future of Mikael Lustig is uncertain. Celtic will need to assemble a new central defence and supplement their attack. Odsonne Édouard, their record signing, has shown flashes of brilliance but centre-forward may not be his best position. Reliance on Kieran Tierney, James Forrest and Callum McGregor may come at a fitness cost.

Criticism of some sloppy performances under Lennon ignores the fact there were plenty of the same under Rodgers. All teams have cycles. It was apparent not only at Ibrox in December, but much earlier when scraping past St Johnstone in the League Cup and being bundled out of the Champions League's qualifying stage by AEK Athens, that Celtic were in need of reinvigoration.

Rodgers is due criticism for the regular shortcomings displayed by his Celtic team in Europe but at home their relentless approach was worthy of admiration. As Lennon oversaw last-minute wins over Hearts, Dundee and Rangers, it was obvious Celtic's mentality remained formidable. One key difference between Celtic and the rest of the top flight is that, when far from their best, the champions generally do not lose.

Lennon must be careful at not being seen as a soft, or cheap, option. Staff costs soared under Rodgers, which seemed a high price for making history in Scotland while being regularly embarrassed in Europe. Although it makes sense for the club to be run far more efficiently in respect of transfers, Lennon needs wriggle room.

There would be symmetry attached to him overseeing pursuit of Celtic's magic number - 10 - just as it would push emotive buttons to have someone so immersed in the club presiding over history. Businesses the size of Celtic cannot be run on sentiment but Lennon has done enough, both in this short stint and from 2010-2014, to prove he is the best manager available.

For the time being Celtic's focus will be on celebration. Rangers, never mind the rest, remain firmly in their slipstream.


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