This ‘split personality’, as one football writer put it, serves to force us Celtic fans to worry about the stability of the team, wondering whether their true nature is the scintillating and cavalier dismantlers of SPL fodder that we often saw last season, and occasionally this season, or if it is the disjointed, naive and unprofessional under-achievers of last Sunday. This piece raises as many questions as it attempts to answer about our young team and manager, and what we can hope for in the future.
It would be fair to say Celtic haven’t really been firing on all cylinders so far this season. One may wonder where the thunder that appeared to rumble so encouragingly last year has gone. The team appeared to be playing their hearts out for Lennon last season, and for the first time in almost a decade, a strong mutual bond and common cause emerged between the team and the fans. I expected this unity and commitment from the team to be even more intense this year, due to the adversity of last season, and the widely held assertion that Celtic were a superior team to Rangers.
Last season we had arguably our strongest midfield since Martin O’Neill’s reign. At the heart of it were Kayal and Ki, two very gifted players who made us tick so often. After a close season awash with rumours of each of their big money move down to the English Premier League, we were all delighted to see them remain as Celtic players as this season kicked off. However, both have started the season inconsistently, particularly Kayal.
Lennon mentioned their heads being elsewhere while the transfer window was open as being perhaps a factor in their underperforming. In instances like this Lennon’s candour reveals a rather alarming state of affairs behind the scenes at the club, where our best players are in a state of (insert word here) hope, fear, expectation, confusion about their potential move away from Celtic.
We went 8 league games unbeaten in the league last year before succumbing to Rangers at Celtic Park in last season’s first derby. This year we have lost two in our first seven league games, against St. Johnstone at Parkhead and Rangers at Ibrox.
Further, as much as I don’t like to flirt with rumour, the whispers of a certain portly player falling out with the management team wouldn’t surprise any of us if found to be true. Commons has fallen fast from matchwinner and potential hunskelper supreme to not even being included in the squad for the most important game of the season so far. Moreover, he then declares himself fit to play, contradicting the manager’s previous assertion that he was unfit. Then there is the fact that we appear to be losing a player almost every week to niggly injuries, often hamstring tweaks. This is yet another worrying sign that points to poor levels of training and preparation at Lennoxtown. I won’t go into the odd team selections in detail but will say that Lennon doesn’t quite have the dilemma of not knowing what his best team is. It’s more like, he knows what his best team is, but doesn’t trust it against Rangers.
These factors worried me on Sunday night while I ruminated with our just having been scudded by that very limited Rangers team. It seemed like Lennon had forgotten about all the football we played against Rangers last season, and decided just to match them up with a long ball game, in essence playing right into their hands.
Although I was troubled by that strange approach, and puzzled at the theory behind it, while journeying through the Timternet that night, I became more and more disheartened by a viewpoint that seemed to be rather widespread. I continually read the opinion that Lennon should go, peppered with words like ‘naive’, ‘clueless’ and ‘shambles’.
For a bit of perspective, as I often do when things don’t seem to be going right, I cast my mind back to when things seemed indeed to be going right. It’s not eons I’m talking about here. It’s six months. It’s all the way back to late winter – early spring of this year, when Celtic were outclassing, outhinking and outfighting Rangers on what felt like a weekly basis. Even the laptop loyal, most notably Paisley’s Charles Young, affirmed that power had shifted significantly in Celtic’s favour and that Rangers just didn’t have an answer for players such as Emilio, Kayal, Samaras (oh yes, even he) and Hooper.
Bearing this in mind, I was truly baffled at how the pendulum of opinion had so violently swung among the support. It made me think of the fickleness of football fans in general, and how short and selective their memories become, so as not to obstruct their white- hot negative energy. I’m not one for delving into the heart of darkness that is the Rangers fan forum community, so my following hypothesis may carry some inaccuracy. (Perhaps those hardy souled bhoys who dance with the devil may be able to enlighten me further.) However, I think the following assertion is true.
During the aforementioned thicket of derbies last season, there would have been serious consternation among the Rangers support about Lennon’s Celtic consistently having the upper hand against Walter Smith’s Rangers. I speculate confidently that there would have been voices on many threads alarmed that a manager with 25 years more coaching experience than Neil Lennon was being given such a showing up. These hypothetical huns may even have used the words ‘clueless’, ‘naive’ and perhaps even ‘shambles’. These voices crying in the wilderness may have poured scorn on their management and players after watching them being taught a footballing lesson by a team with 10 men. The combative and classy Steven Davis could not get a kick of the ball on that particular Sunday. Two weeks later, there would have been precious little chivalrous language reserved for Sir Walter after Rangers were reamed 3-0 in Paradise. They offered nothing that day. They were, truly, clueless. But, and here’s my main point, after all this was said and done – Rangers won the championship.
Rewind to August 2007 when Gordon Strachan took his team to Ibrox and saw them bullied to a 3-0 hammering. Celtic were awful. Celtic were the sieve. Celtic won the league that season. We all still dream about and salivate over the 6-2 game, and why not? But what about 3 months later at Ibrox? The destruction, the thrashing, the humiliation that was Rangers 5 – Celtic 1?
Wind forward to today. Autumn 2011. What about today’s ‘Old Firm’ climate? Let me hypothesise: What if your city rivals were giggling and ridiculing your team and club’s imminent financial meltdown, chuckling at your signing policy and their fans had taken to calling your gaffer ‘The Fat Paul Le Guen’? It may just fire you up to the point that you will run through a brick wall to beat them, to show them that they should maybe take care of their own business before they laugh at yours. Simply, to show them that they’re not as good as they think they are, and in fact, that you’re better. Motivation often manifests itself in peculiar ways. Perhaps we offer Rangers all the motivation they need at times? For every action there’s a reaction, and so it continues.
So what am I saying here eh? Well, I suppose part of my point is that, simply, as history has shown, often Rangers beat us at Ibrox. Sometimes they skelp us, because they play well and we play poorly. It happened to Stein, McNeill, O’Neill and Strachan. And on Sunday, for the first time in 4 games at Ibrox, it happened to Lennon. Furthermore, it is very tempting to over-emphasise the importance of the results of Old Firm games. They are not always an accurate way of gauging who will hold sway at the end of season. Most significant though, is that Lennon needs to fix this quickly. As history has shown, you can get away with a thudding defeat at Ibrox and still be successful. Some may even argue that such results act as a wake-up call. However, this success hinges on you beating everybody else on a week-to-week basis. It remains to be seen if this team can uphold such consistency.
So, are Lennon’s Celtic a young, rough and exciting team prone to the odd calamity? Or are they an accident waiting to happen who paper over the cracks by occasionally drubbing SPL dross? Has Neil had his morning glory and is now regressing to mediocrity? Has he ‘lost the dressing room’? (grrr.. fitba cliches) Or is he a young manager with great potential who has done remarkably well building a new team, but is still inexperienced enough to commit the occasional glaring mistake?
Personally, my head is spinning with the polarity of opinion and the speed at which it has changed. I don’t know the answers, but I know that Rangers will always fight tooth and nail to defeat us. We can never ever underestimate them. We have to fight much harder if we want to beat them. Always. Sometimes, Celtic teams, even the good ones, lose sight of this. This may have been a large part of what happened to us on Sunday. It may or may not be indicative of a deeper problem. Perhaps Lennon and the coaching staff will wake up to the fact that this is war again, and that we need to find consistency by playing our strongest team. Then we will see the true nature of Neil Lennon’s Celtic.