All told, it’s been a blast. But has Neil Lennon’s time in charge ran its course? I think it has, something which it really pains me to say. Naturally, a whole range of factors are at play, both within and outwith the manager’s control. He sure isn’t blameless, but at the same time, has arguably lacked the full extent of support he can feel entitled to count upon from those above him, and more generally has had to operate in a horrible climate of personal prejudice towards him from sections of Scottish society at large. The last part hardly needs elaborating on – recent events at Tynecastle reinforced that it is not a matter which has gone away, no matter how intently some talking heads would wish it so – suffice to say it’s been a campaign of hatred and intimidation pretty much without historical precedent, at least so far as it goes for individuals charged with the relatively trivial task of managing a football team.
With that in mind, overall Lennon has been a success for Celtic – perhaps not an unqualified success, granted – but success enough to enhance what was already a legendary status for many, and cement his place in the history of the club in a manner only a select few can match – victorious as both a player and manager. In particular what he delivered in the Champions League last term, which will no doubt be seen as the peak of his tenure, cannot be understated. Not least as it was achieved with a young squad sourced on a shoestring and timed so fantastically to coincide with our anniversary celebrations – the symbolism of that will only increase with time and it’ll provide a fantastic juncture in the club’s historical narrative for those lucky enough to have enjoyed it at the time, and future generations of supporters still to come along and catch the bug. Episodes like that, however brief, are massively important to the club’s international image, and closer to home our own sense of self-worth, and cannot remotely be taken for granted. Definitely not in an era when the die is so horribly loaded against us when it comes to winning games at the pinnacle of European club football.
And so far as I’m concerned he was basically cheated out of three SPL titles in a row prior to that, by late rivals playing difference-makers like Nikica Jelavic when the only financial option remaining open to what is now a maggot-infested corpse, was to stiff any creditors of the money they were owed for everything from a fifty quid crystal decanter marking the captain’s testimonial to the services of their EPL-quality top goalscorer, and other key performers besides. Rule-breaking that, had it not gone unchecked, would see Lennon sitting right now with a 100% record of league championship successes since taking his bow as a rookie manager, no less. And even with the systemic thievery and financial doping of the now defunct Rangers 1872 allowed to proceed apace, still only a bawhair could separate them from a team managed by an individual that a mob of extremist folllow followers had at one stage successfully forced under 24/7 police guard whilst the competition was still ongoing.
Bringing us up to date however, this season has been a real shanner, and more worryingly for our medium-term prospects under the current figureheads we look increasingly unable to learn from repeat mistakes. Jake the Snake summed it up perfectly when he tweeted, “Winning a treble – blown. Winning league at Ibrox – blown. Winning Scottish Cup at Celtic Park – blown. Moments in history all blown.” Going out of yet another cup at a stage when lower league teams remain, having been burned in near-identical fashion so often prior, is truly wretched stuff. Not for the first time in our history too many key figures at the club appear to have seized on fleeting glory to carve a comfort zone for themselves. Players and management aren’t immune from that criticism. Above both groups still, CEO Peter Lawwell appears to wield far too much control and should arguably move on also, with his record a more mixed one over the course.
At the height of our CL campaign last year it was commonplace to read gushing articles from London-based journos staggered by our success rate in unearthing well-scouted gems at bargain prices. And as far as that snapshot in time goes, they weren’t wrong. But in truth there’s no sign of a clear philosophy that can be said to be absolutely reliable as a medium/long-term model for delivering European respectability and the kind of sustained trophy-hoovering that – and let’s not opt for false modesty here – we absolutely ought to be seeing on the domestic front right now. Instead we get what is far closer to a scattergun approach, inevitably yielding the odd harvest which is better than the last.
Certainly that would explain some of the activity between 2010-12 (Gary Hooper through to Victor Wanyama, if you like) that helped deliver a strong CL campaign in 12-13, once the players had a chance to educate themselves at Europa level the season beforehand. And to illustrate the same point further, even still there was an awful lot of highly expensive waste generated during the same timeframe, in the shape of various “striking flops” (and hasn’t that just become an emblematic phrase in recent times?) such as Murphy, Bangura, Lassad, Miku, etc. I’m no doubt missing one or two others that it’s just far too depressing to call instantly to mind.
When taking a holistic view it’s worth bearing in mind that the current CEO presided over the disastrously expensive, stick-a-pin-in-the-map-whilst-blindfolded approach to building a squad of vagrants and imposters under Tony Mowbray. A likeable guy but one who arguably should never have gotten within a mile of the manager’s office himself to begin with, after his West Brom side were relegated without a fight – however swashbuckling their intentions en route to a record number of defeats. When it all went tits up in Glasgow, Lawwell, along with a chairman with previous for political shitebaggery of the highest order, promptly staged a disappearing act whilst the support clamoured for answers.
We now find ourselves on the other side of the various merchandising, brand-promotion, and all round memory-hole plunging opportunities that were predictably and no less gleefully seized upon during the excitement of our 125th birthday celebrations – following which the chairman told shareholders we’d be “unstoppable” if they could all just zip it and trust the fine minds at the helm. What are we witnessing? Another bench packed out with this season’s assortment of transfer duds that the manager evidently has zero faith in when it matters most, with Leigh Griffiths pitched in from the Wolves reserves in an attempt to keep our pinky finger in the same competition as a basket case third tier side (and even more frighteningly, very arguably with a view to securing next season’s Champions League participation also). In Europe, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous in one fell swoop, another domestic cup was pissed away for good measure.
The bonuses continued to pile up for those at the top, the AGM was the stuff of triumphalism, yet all the while fans were were being dragged from their beds by a politicised police force and tossed in jail for singing songs, whilst the club itself, instead of championing their defence, were preoccupied with neutering any remaining flag-wavers. Fans whose greatest crime was to upset the usual assortment of hand-wringing, permaraging opinion-havers that can at any given moment be found packing out the ranks of the West of Scotland media, the Twittersphere, Have Your Say sections and much else beyond, urging anyone who isn’t offended yet to feast their righteous eyeballs on – gasp! – Bobby Sands, and be sure to tell their friends.
To top it all off, a frankly insulting decision was made to deny the club’s poorest employees a living wage on the grounds that we were shout-it-from-the-rooftops loaded and financially well-run and full of charitable instincts, but – conveniently – just not quite loaded or well-run or charitable instinct-y enough to pay a non-insulting wage to the most vulnerable members of – and again I reach for the board’s own rhetoric here, at least when they are punting tickets and merch – our “Celtic Family”.
By any reckoning, 2013-14 has been a poorly handled, completely unmemorable campaign, for all but those family members whom 2012-13 directly enriched. As a recipe for filling empty seats goes, it’s been pitiful stuff. Thank heavens for Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dyke, and man-crushes, is about all I can come up with on a redemptive note right now.
2012-13 on the other hand was great but if we’re being frank, it was the exception rather than the rule in terms of what those in charge have delivered in the five seasons now since Gordon Strachan was moved on, having also been allowed to stick around longer than he arguably should as a result of a PLC board that were even then showing clear signs of complacency and hubris upon securing 3IAR. Which we did in admittedly thrilling, emotionally-charged style, but by our fingernails nevertheless. Quelle surprise, within six months of that a board not unwilling to crow on the regular about our financial footing and reach, were vetoing Stephen Fletcher in favour of Willo Flood – go figure the prevailing philosophy. It would have desperate consequences.
If change is to come it will be with our best wishes and gratitude to anyone exiting stage left, though there will be a sliding scale on that count and I’d still reserve most of my own for a manager more often than not working to unreasonable constraints. But he’s run out of excuses in his own right, meaning change now looks increasingly essential regardless. It does upset me to find myself finally reaching this conclusion regards a Celtic legend, I had sincerely hoped, and at one point was close to convinced that he could be a dynasty-maker for us. But for so many reasons it wasn’t to be.