Until our absentee “owner” is, at the very least, called out of exile to explain his medium/long-term future plans for the club, I fear nothing of any significance will change. And if that is to be the fate in store for the elusive Dermot Desmond, he can at least be grateful it is a far kinder one than many would reserve for our bonus-wielding CEO Peter Lawwell and his trusty wing-man, chief scout John Park. Come the time this double act are finally making their way to pastures new, be it through their own choice or otherwise, there will be no shortage of volunteers for any prospective angry mob intent on quickening each man’s pulse on their way down London Road.
That said I can perfectly understand those reaching the end of their tether with Neil Lennon and his management team as we fall farther backwards in the SPL – the performances have veered mainly between mediocre and at times truly garbage, punctuated only very occasionally this season with reminders of the kind of form the team hit in the second half of the previous season. Much, much more worrying, is that clearly all is far from well behind the scenes when it comes to such factors as squad unity, and that necessary element of respect/awe/fear of the management on the part of the playing corps – surely a feature of most successful groups. And for that last part in particular the management team have only the mirror in which to look for answers.
Gone is the siege mentality of last season, the void filled by a truly temperamental assortment of fair-weather performers, few if any with the trophy-gathering pedigree, yet who in many cases have come to believe their own hype, and in the case of the precocious Beram Kayal in particular, that they can opt out of playing duties no less, on the merest of whims. In many respects the toxic combination of complacency and hubris suddenly consuming some of our most important players is symptomatic of a culture which has filtered on down from the boardroom for half a decade, arguably longer now.
Having fallen short last season yet nevertheless finished the campaign with goodwill positively washing over the players from the stands, it would appear that rather than sweat blood to go one better at the next opportunity, a frightening number were contented enough at that. Certainly enough to foster a sense of immediate entitlement, and the striking of an aggressive tone in dealings with management and club, all justified on the basis of unfulfilled promise alone. A handier accompaniment you couldn’t hope to find to the constant “jam tomorrow” rhetoric of the suits, no strangers themselves to self-praise during a period when the club’s football fortunes have been in dramatic reverse, club performance both on and off the park speaking for itself.
Unarguably though, Lennon should be wringing far more out of his group of players instead of repeatedly threatening to wring their necks in the aftermath of another poor outing. Repeat failings have been exposed and he is in broken record territory now, well and truly. Nevertheless, the line that the “players are good enough to be beating [insert SPL opponents] anyway” heard with increasing regularity from supporters focusing their ire on the manager above all else, is a cop out which must give Lawwell cause to burst into a jig every time he hears another paying punter hit out with it. It is no way to run a football club to have the manager third in the pecking order when it comes to deliberating on recruitment. A shambolic state of affairs and almost certainly directly linked to the difficulties currently being experienced in the dugout on game days.
Our approach to squad-building has been unprofessional for years and one consequence was that the current manager was hung out to dry this summer when there was a hugely strong case that a young, relatively inexperienced and inexpensively assembled core of the squad were capable of making a real leap should genuine quality and, crucially, seniority, be added to the ranks.
I find some of the short memories incredible when comparing the reactions of many nowadays to the period in which we hit our stride last season. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that all in the garden was rosy at any point, but there was as close to a consensus as I can remember at the close of last season that we had reversed the very worst of the decline – and a true nadir it was during Tony Mowbray’s season – whilst assembling the guts of a team who represented a decent platform, a rough blueprint, for a period of progress. But crucially that hinged on the two or three walk-right-into-the-team signings almost everyone bar a few Gerry McSherry 2.0 figures agreed we were crying out for during the summer. In particular in defence, for some years now priority number one in the first team.
What momentum we did build up last season was achieved via a combination of sheer force of personality in the dugout and a cheaply-sourced hotchpotch of fairly left-field signings, the latter of course thickened out by a bundle of failed punts on EPL surplus and Mexican internationalists who for whatever reason did not fit the new mould. After fashioning a unit from individuals whom in many cases he had no input in recruiting (the same goes for those departing) the very least Lennon deserved ahead of this season – and certainly the least he deserves to be judged on – was increased heeding of his own personal recommendations and an ambitious (within reason) assault on the market from his paymasters.
Producing first team quality operators capable of doing more than merely swelling the ranks would have mitigated the very worst of a bad run of injuries, strengthened our depth, raised the bar for the remainder who did so well but ultimately choked the season prior, and made it far harder for a few primadonnas to start picking fights with their shadow, playing hardball in contract negotiations, and taking their eye off the prize on the pitch. This is not said with hindsight. It should have been obvious from the very start of the process to anyone in a position of influence at Celtic, and if it wasn’t, we should be asking why not, and what on earth we are paying some individuals for.
Two players in particular, now regulars in EPL sides, were more than amenable to making the move if our CEO could make the deals happen, and communicated as much directly to Lennon and his lieutenants. I believe both players would have comfortably fallen into the ‘blue chip’ category in terms of SPL competition, with one boasting the seniority, experience and game-changing pedigree to potentially illuminate any league on his day.
In the event, even a meaningful stab at Baba Diawara, another choice lower down the pecking order, proved beyond those handsomely rewarded to regularly champion the sound running of the football club whilst gleefully mocking our championship-hoovering rivals whenever the tiniest opportunity presents itself. Again the manager was instead asked to craft a silk purse from a sows ear with a hastily cobbled together handful of randoms he may or may not have even heard of prior to their signing on the dotted line at Celtic Park, but I couldn’t possibly comment for certain on that. What he pulled off last season is looking beyond him this, but asking such a young and inexperienced figure to go back to the well a second time was always going to be a colossal gamble.
That scale of let-down once the window ceremonially ‘slammed shut’ would have been a disgrace any season, let alone going into one as crucial as this, on the back of everything Lenny endured last term. His popularity and somewhat ‘iconic’ status with sections of the support marked him out as a human shield for powerbrokers whose relationships had broken down with the rank and file support entirely. Our CEO and chairman were nowhere to be seen or heard for months after the Tony Mowbray debacle they presided over, a catastrophe for the club on both sporting and financial fronts, yet couldn’t get the populist roadshows on the go fast enough when given the chance to allow for shows of hands from ordinary supporters endorsing their rookie replacement, despite the fact the decision was already a fait accompli on cost-cutting grounds.
Quelle surprise, one season later having generated some much-need goodwill, in his hour of need those who Neil Lennon ought to be able to count on most shat on him from a height, content for an accountant and his mate to once again busy themselves playing FM2011 with the club’s prospects. It was a monumental liberty.
My biggest gripe with the manager, by far, is that he has chosen to put up with this level of interference, and shown no willingness to take the fight to the club, aside a couple of barbed comments about fourth-rate trialists he was made to waste his and the club’s valuable time with during the summer. Most likely his silence and willingness to conform to such suffocating constraints is down to the sincere, but increasingly misplaced belief he can still turn the situation around against all odds, and produce a happy ending for all, strengthening his hand for a renegotiation of terms down the line. Whatever charge people wish to level at Neil Lennon, there can be little doubt he is an individual supremely conditioned to putting Celtic ahead of his own interests. For that he’ll likely pay with his job one way or another between now and the end of this season, the championship drought ongoing.
Whilst there’s no disputing that many questions remain unanswered in terms of the managerial learning curve, nevertheless were Lennon to pay the ultimate price at this stage it would represent an astonishing betrayal. Not only would he depart without having been granted an honest shot, free of undue interference from above, and with the full capacity to plan, but the whole episode would highlight the folly of placing any sort of young manager of potential, in the hands of this Celtic board, governed by an unofficial and absentee owner and a dangerously unaccountable CEO who has gathered Director of Football powers by stealth, and whose collective incompetence is borne out by a transfer of both finances and silverware to Ibrox that would have been close to inconceivable in the summer of 2008.
Unless the track record of those individuals is brought into sharper focus by all concerned then Lennon’s head on a spike will without doubt be followed merely by the appointment of another patsy doomed to sleepwalk toward career oblivion. The name Mark McGhee already regularly haunts discussions on the forums. Predictably enough Martin O’Neill’s name features equally regularly and in considerably more hopeful tones but it strikes me as the height of wishful thinking to think MON would come back here with a remit of generating more in sales than is spent on transfer fees, with a squad that, beyond half a dozen odd lynchpins of the starting XI is arguably the worst at CP since the junta’s days, already packed out with dross we’ve been unable to shift for in some cases three, four seasons now.
One name which has already been informally discussed by board members as a potential replacement is Darren Ferguson, currently boss at Peterborough United. Despite enjoying success in spells at the club either side of a short-lived and ill-fated tenure at Preston North End, he has never managed at a higher level than the English second tier, and obviously has no particular connection to Celtic. Not that the latter ought to preclude any individual from the job, but worth mentioning given the comparison with Lennon, for whom it was clearly felt an intrinsic connection and ‘understanding’ of the club may compensate at least in part for a lack of experience.
Others can decide for themselves if that brand of alternative gets the juices flowing on the back of half a decade of gradual demise, three seasons of startling underachievement, a seismic shock to the system in this, the fourth since going without a championship, an outbreak of disharmony within the playing squad, and a mammoth rebuilding exercise lying in wait regardless for whoever takes up the reigns. What is most telling and far more likely to deliver chills is the fact that such a name nowadays pops up near the very top of the boardroom wish-list. That is the pretty pass our famously ‘risk-averse’ directors have brought the club to after years of mutual back-slapping. You could not make it up.