His ascent to the actual Celtic job certainly happened sooner than I imagined, and in circumstances none of us dared. Crazy me thought the rough plan would be his taking the reigns at a lower level with a view to the long game. Call it unofficially farming him out to a diddy club and retaining first option. On the surface the only difference seems not to have farmed him out to a diddy club but to have just behaved like one till we needed him ourselves. But that couldn’t possibly be the case, obviously there’s a bit more to what brought us here than that. Obviously.
The last caretaker on site was none other than the Champion of Bairds Bar, Kenny Dalglish. That followed the demise of his buddy and star ‘pupil’ in Taking the Newcastle Reserves Training class, John Barnes, who just so happened to have as much experience managing a first team as Lennon. So we’re not good on rookies or caretakers. And one was a Celtic legend so no get-out there for Lenny either.
In the decade since KK and Digger’s post-Junta nadir for the club, and thanks to events of this season in particular, that whole abortive experiment has become the touchstone for managerial comparisons normally signalling the rank-and-file equivalent of a vote of confidence from the board of directors.
And what a nadir. It was, admitted then-Chief Executive Allan MaDonald, a “high risk strategy”. Sadly, that was his most accurate assessment of any situation whilst in the job. It played out like most Vegas-odds tilts at success, spectacularly disastrously, from the folly of the initial spending spree to the ICT debacle through the actual signing of a guy called Scheidt, as if we just absolutely had to crown the whole stunt off by vandalising that page of the history book with a swear word, one last petty, juvenile and laughable sign-off. Fuck me, the sheer brazenness with which it was inflicted on the support after years of rebuilding by the tyrant McCann, by a board of directors plenty of whom hung around to preach frugality when the bill arrived at the very moment their subsequent appointment had assembled the greatest Celtic side in three decades. Nice one. We should thank them for their vision.
As Tony Mowbray’s time at the helm gradually unravelled to the point where many argued the performances and results were “worse than Barnes”, the writing was on the wall. The St Mirren debacle clinched it weeks, arguably months later if you go back to Feb 2nd Rugby Park as the essential death knell for our hopes of silverware this season, or even a respectable fight with a Rangers side tragic enough in its own right.
Lennon now steps in, like the last caretaker, afforded a shot at one of the cup competitions, Dalglish’s team having gathered the League Cup almost in passing as the season unwound to a backdrop of feverish speculation regarding the appointment of names as big as Guus Hiddink or Martin O’Neill for the following campaign. More largesse was promised and indeed followed, but crucially owing equally to a frenzied bid by Desmond, Quinn, McDonald et al to regain supporter goodwill and professional repute by sacrificing every last remainder of the hard-earned left in the vault after the cursed frugality of the Saddam McCann years. The speccy wee arsehole that he was.
That won’t be happening a second time around, because times out there in the current economic climate are hard and you only have to read a newspaper to know it, according to experts. It’s all someone else’s fault apparently, and the only free pass was given to the EPL. What shit luck for us when we were being so well managed.
So Lennon will have it infinitely tougher if he sticks it out than when his mentor from his playing days O’Neill arrived.
Another consequence however is that, unlike Dalglish, Lennon is from the off a genuine, if hardly automatic contender for the permanent position. There are no Hiddinks or O’Neills on the horizon this time around, and even supporters who dare to be as hopeful as me in my fleeting moments of unbridled optimism stretch only as far to considering the likes of Mark Hughes. A good shout, sure, and relative dream ticket given what we’ve come to expect. But he’s still not as good as MON and it won’t happen anyway. Bah.
No wonder that much alone proves sufficient to spark further dissatisfaction amongst many at what is perceived to be the limited scope of the board’s reach, and/or ambition when sanctioning key recruits nowadays.
Yet Lennon is an individual who has seemingly made it his business to explode convention in his time in Glasgow and for now at least, things will be very different to a semi-retired Dalglish going through the motions ten seasons ago, with absolutely no hunger, or chance left for glory. A greater contrast with Lennon you couldn’t in fact imagine. And with that there is at least some hope.
He’s already one of the select few to win to win titles both in the Celtic jersey and as a coach, though of course similarities are once again scarce with his role in Gordon Strachan’s backroom team in the closing months of an emotionally sapping, adrenalin-fuelled 2007-08 campaign. And things didn’t exactly go swimmingly in his only full season in the same role. This time around he squares up to the brutal remainder of a campaign destined at best to yield only lesser silverware and almighty disappointment overall. But it’ll go some way further toward defining his future in the game.
The win against Kilmarnock marking his arrival for real was of course encouraging, but meaningful predictions as to how he will fare are naturally hard to come by so early on. Not only starting out but parachuted suddenly into his role in something approaching blind panic and with a tangible sense of volatility hanging over the club’s affairs as we face down another crucial phase of re-organisation.
As for natural talent in the job, so honed and varied are the tactical and psychological armouries employed by the modern football manager that a remotely complete illustration of Lennon’s own unique capabilities likely won’t be flushed out over the course of a bundle of domestic games closing out a season with little left to compete for. Even if Dermot Desmond could any longer recognise those winning capabilties from twenty paces in a hospitality tent, which having seen us progress from O’Neill, through Strachan, to Mowbray, I’ve now reason to doubt.
My feeling is the board will for the time being be as content as possible in the circumstances to let events play out as they may whilst taking as much advantage from a bad situation as possible, at least in terms of buying time. A post-mortem regrouping of sorts might lead to a few changes in policy but despite what all of us who frequent the forums want there’s likely been no Damascene conversions with floors shaking and horses bolting whilst reality dawned on shellshocked PLC directors that they should have been listening to us guys on the internet all along.
What we can say with some authority however is that the board’s prized, self-styled reputation for studiously striving to minimise risk in such difficult times and rewarding themselves accordingly for so doing, has at least been made by recent events to look an essentially empty boast. Certainly when shifting the focus away from the chosen villain that is unsustainabe levels of debt and toward a consideration of the separate but related risks inherent in a number of recent footballing decisions pursued so long as a key pillar for servicing the debt was a downsizing of first -team quality itself.
In opting for third-rate managerial appointments and allowing the CEO to adopt a needlessly hardline stance toward both player recruitment and sales, all seemingly borne of a deep-rooted complacency given the parlous state of our rival’s finances, they have merely rendered inert the actual football division at the heart of everyone’s concerns, via alternative means.
As the Generation of Domination draws to a close with our tank retreating from their marble staircase after we stopped instead to hand sweets to impoverished locals, and with the trophy count between ourselves and Rangers sitting at 13 apiece, you might even say (but I wouldn’t) they’ve been made to look like rather bumbling stewards. Men no longer fit for the purpose of guiding the affairs of an organisation they themselves profess via Reid and Lawell’s populist bluster to be the best, most resource-rich, professionally equipped and expertly administrated one in their own locale, as we now toil in the wake of a club that were the object of outright mockery and derision at the most recent AGM. In short, they can’t have it both ways.
Lennon’s status as a cost-efficient newbie without sufficient pedigree to immediately complicate matters around the bargaining table, fits like a glove for now. The board have maintained a guiding hand on managerial shoulders since the departure of the MON-Walford-Robinson axis, with a system now epitomised by what looks very much like a de facto General Manager set-up – a CEO with a huge public profile, an explosion of youthful project signings sanctioned, brand-oriented scouting, and all very much in the fashion of various (and evidently better drilled) continental clubs. Some of whom we’re at pains to hang out with in the corridor. Especially if they’re as cool, popular and right-on as Barcelona and it involves taking surplus youngsters off their hands which we’ve no idea what to do with once over here.
DD and his nodding dogs will know that if Lennon, and fellow Seville team-mate Johan Mjallby, fail to impress, or at best merely get us ambling along till season’s end without producing much of promise or note, it will be a process of relatively minimal fuss to move them on, turn elsewhere and wash their hands of what was, officially, a stop-gap appointment in any event. If on the other hand there are signs of real promise and, say, we end the season with a Scottish Cup victory and, most crucially, a healthy result and performances versus the usual suspects in the final OF game, Lennon becomes as good a shout for the full-time role as anyone you could care to mention. It makes perfect sense to think the job is now his to lose.
His part-in-part-out status in relation to the previous management team was already pretty telling in terms of how the board saw his potential to contribute. There are also genuine positives here. For one, they know he’s the biggest remaining link with not only the heyday of the MON years but also the most enjoyable and emotional of the three Gordon Strachan titles also, He has massive reserves of adulation with the support and a relative aura of authority with chunks of the playing squad. He’s also a winner, a more forceful personality than most, and, more profoundly, ‘gets’ the club, so to speak.
You don’t just jettison someone like that even if changes elsewhere dictate terms. With the arrival of Tony Mowbray, Peter Grant and Mark Venus there was obviously considerable focus on shoe-horning Neil into a role that would keep him on site, with one eye on the long-term even when it was clear the new men (allegedly Grant, in particular) had no intentions of widening the coaching cabal to include him to begin with. He’s a survivor, who has adapted expertly to changing situations before and stayed the course, thrived with working with two succesful yet very different Celtic managers, whilst assuming and then flourishing in leadership roles under both. He knows the workings of the club intimately.
Handing him the job in the summer would be yet another massive gamble, and that it’s already his job is to lose itself says it all about the place our non-gambling custodians have brought us to. But one thing is for sure, if he does go on to last in the role, it won’t be by doing things in half-measures. Savvy to the club’s inner workings, with the character to dictate terms down the line, and huge credibility amongst supporters, success under Lennon would be era-defining or not at all. It’s a risk, but so are all appointments. Part of me still likes the odds. And admittedly I’ve been pretty desperate to say something positive this whole time.