The Celtic performance yesterday told us a lot about Neil Lennon and his players, it also told us as much about Walter Smith and his Rangers. Neil Lennon did not panic when things went against Celtic, instead he took brave and considered decisions. He got every major tactical decision right. Some were shocked when Commons was subbed and Ki stayed on the park. Ki was pulling all the strings in the second half. Protected by Ledley and Brown, it was this young man who sprayed passes with aplomb and grace. The subsequent decision to pull off Kayal and push on Samaras, might also have been regarded as a reckless gamble. The full backs Wilson and Izaguirre were then encouraged to bomb ahead and in the process, kept Rangers pinned in their own half.
I reckon that due to unforeseen circumstances, Neil Lennon was forced to change his system three times during the course of the game. At each point he made the right call, he threw down the gauntlet and Smith could not respond.
Two other points need to be made. Long before Naismith was sent off, Rangers were chasing shadows. Rangers’ players seemed to lack the physical stamina and mental hardness of Lennon’s men. Celtic players were younger and hence less experienced, they were also playing away from home and came back twice from behind. When Naismith was eventually dismissed, it was clear that only Celtic were capable of winning the game. A mixture of bad luck, poor refereeing and a wonder save prevented Celtic from getting their just desserts.
Another myth that has been allowed to take root is that Celtic have pulled ahead due to generous spending in the transfer market. Yesterday, man for man Rangers cost more than Celtic. From a purely fiscal point of view, Celtic have valued assets which they can convert at a much higher profit. Rangers face the real prospect of the backbone of their team out of contract and leaving for peanuts in the summer.
Neil Lennon identified and signed the likes of Kayal, Izaguirre, Stokes and Ledley.
He is in the process of turning around the career of Scott Brown, who yesterday demonstrated why the club paid so much money for him a few years ago. One could even cite the remarkable resurrection of Charlie Mulgrew who has achieved a level of consistency which has surprised many.
But the star of the show is of course Neil Lennon, a man who has had to endure a baptism of fire. Whether it was the media, the SFA, other managers and even a small section of the Celtic support, Lennon has answered the critics and sceptics.
As somebody who watched Celtic being dismembered by an obscure Utrecht team in The Netherlands, I would not have been surprised had he been gone by the end of the season. It seems that my contemplation of his obituary has proved to be very premature.
Neil Lennon first steadied the ship and then began to stamp his authority on his team. Lennon might not espouse a footballing philosophy, but yesterday showed that he will always try and win a game, regardless of the odds or the situation.
Contrast his positive approach with that of the dour, soulless system of Wattienaccio. What sort of man sends out his eleven men against the opponents’ ten, at home and with a goal advantage in a cup tie, in the way he did?
This was classic Walter Smith, take no risks, get all the men behind the ball and grind out a result. It would never have occurred to Smith to have gone all out and pressed their numerical and home advantage. Rangers looked increasingly ragged as the game progressed and one sensed a team on the brink and about to give up the ghost.
Yesterday’s performance was decisive, Celtic are not intimidated by Rangers any more. Celtic players’ attitude was a reflection of their manager’s attitude, he simply will not accept being second best to Rangers.
Neil Lennon learns fast and that is clear by the decisions he made, forced to think on his feet, amidst the mayhem and madness of Ibrox, he got it right. There is a sense of a man rapidly maturing and committed to the cause. He is surrounded by a team of ex-Celtic men, Mjallby and Thompson also share Lennon’s belief in their mission.
As the sun sets on the career of Walter Smith, Scotland’s finest scribblers prepare to sharpen their crayons and pen fawning articles about the greatness of “Walter’, more serious heads should prevail. Smith was never anything more than a competent manager, and even that is being generous to him. A mere novice has out thought him and outfoxed him, and in the twilight of his career he faces the ignominy of being put in his place by a rookie manager.
Smith never showed the basic intelligence that Lennon clearly possesses. Smith embodies everything that is wrong about Scottish football. It is a scary prospect to enter the head of your Rangers’ supporter, but even Billy from Larkhall must have had grave doubts about how Rangers went about their business. Yet again, key decisions went Rangers way and Celtic were punished. Smith inexplicably blew the legacy with a mind numbing decision to dig in and invite Celtic to dictate the game, in terms of territory and possession.
There is serious talk about employing Smith in some sort of advisory capacity in the national set-up. No doubt Mr George Peat would certainly embrace ‘Walter’s’ promotion as enthusiastically as he celebrated a Rangers goal in the main stand. The key thing is that were Smith to lose the SPL, and God forbid a treble to Celtic, Rangers supporters would not be so forgiving.
I suspect myself and others would take total pleasure in seeing Neil Lennon humiliate the ‘master’ in his final year. That would prove to be a fitting verdict on abilities and attitude of Walter Myth.