Neil Lennon’s resignation as Celtic manager completes a year in which the tectonic plates of Old Firm fortune shifted with unprecedented force.
Twelve months ago, a Rangers title challenge, which had looked powerful after their win in the New Year derby at Parkhead, had collapsed after the winter break, when Steven Gerrard’s players failed to win back-to-back league games in the rest of the campaign.
Rangers had lost to Celtic in the Scottish League Cup final despite being the better side, but their hope of success in the Scottish Cup foundered at Tynecastle, where they were beaten by a Hearts side toiling at the foot of the Premiership.
By the time of the Covid-19 shutdown in March, Rangers were 13 points adrift of their arch foes, and when the league was decided on average points-per-game (PPG), Celtic celebrated a ninth successive championship to equal their record under Jock Stein (1966-’74) and Rangers under Graeme Souness and Walter Smith (1989-’97).
Lennon was entitled to take an extra measure of satisfaction because he had steered the team to their first three titles in the latest sequence.
The Scottish Cup semi-finals were postponed because of the pandemic but when the tournament resumed in November, Celtic beat Aberdeen and went on to defeat Hearts in a penalty shoot-out to secure an unprecedented fourth successive clean sweep of domestic honours.
Lennon had the distinction of becoming the first to win the treble as a player – under Martin O’Neill – and as a manager.
Yet, by that stage, Celtic fans had already staged protests against their manager, one of which featured violent disorder outside Parkhead after a 2-0 defeat by Ross County in the Scottish League Cup.
That humiliation compounded the pain of a Europa League campaign which saw Celtic finish bottom of their group in conceding four goals to AC Milan and in both meetings with Sparta Prague.
The vehement dissent, which was also directed at Celtic’s CEO Peter Lawwell and biggest shareholder Dermot Desmond, was fuelled most of all by the evaporation of the prospect of TIAR – Ten In A Row – the Holy Grail of the Hoops support, who had dreamt of enjoying bragging rights over Rangers for generations to come.
Rangers were then transformed by Gerrard into a ruthless unit. They swept into a double-figure points lead in the Premiership table and romped through their Europa League group unbeaten to finish top.
Celtic, by contrast, were frequently shambolic. Nobody – including Lennon – could identify the best starting XI.
Summer signings – like Albian Ajeti and Shane Duffy – looked disoriented in their sporadic appearances.
Odsonne Edouard had not got the move he had desired during the close season and – as Lennon later admitted – had his mind elsewhere in the first half of the campaign.
Edouard’s fellow striker, Leigh Griffiths, returned disappointing fitness results in training.
Jeremie Frimpong, the Dutch full-back who was a fans’ favourite, was also intent on getting out and was sold to Bayer Leverkusen last month.
Celtic’s influential captain, Scott Brown, had reached the stage where he rarely played a full game.
The disarray on the field was compounded by events off-stage.
Boli Bolingoli, Celtic’s Belgian defender, inexplicably chose to make an overnight trip to Spain without telling anyone and played against Kilmarnock the following weekend, not having been in quarantine.
His behaviour angered Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who also criticised Celtic when the squad’s New Year training spell in Dubai became a PR nightmare.
Although Celtic followed Uefa travel protocols and had cleared the trip with the Scottish government, Lennon and Brown were pictured drinking poolside beers, an image which went down badly with a domestic audience constrained by fresh lockdown rules.
It also angered Celtic supporters dismayed by the team’s third successive Old Firm derby defeat at Ibrox on January 2.
When Christopher Jullien tested positive for coronavirus on return to Scotland, Lennon and his assistant manager, plus 13 players, had to self-isolate for 10 days, during which Celtic drew with Hibs and twice with Livingston.
The Parkhead board had stated they would stand by Lennon in recognition of his service to the club, at least until a review in the new year.
That loyalty expired on Sunday, when Celtic lost again to Ross County, this time in a Premiership fixture.
To those who have agitated for change, Lennon’s departure is long overdue.
Those who shared empathy with a man who previously revealed his struggles with depression are relieved that he no longer has to engage with problems which had become intractable.
Indeed, it can be argued that this parting of the ways will be most beneficial of all to Lennon – a man who has looked profoundly wearied by what has proved to be an unwinnable contest with his own players. (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited