I can’t really claim to know Neil Lennon, but I’ve met him, and I like him. Currently he has my sympathy. As I write, he is still the Celtic manager. I hope it stays that way.
Few people will be more aware of the reality of the Celtic goldfish bowl, but he’ll need to be made of strong stuff to cope with the hysteria which has followed the Ross County result. And that’s ignoring the demonstration outside Celtic Park after the match, which can only be condemned in the strongest fashion.
Lennon is taking the bulk of the flak, and that’s simply not fair. When anything goes off the rails it is appropriate to examine the leadership from the top. To their credit, Peter Lawwell and Dermot Desmond appear, correctly in my view, to be giving the manager support. Mind you, I don’t recall hearing anything from the chairman.
My hope is that when the heavy pressure comes their way, they continue to do the right thing.
The normal football pattern in such circumstances is for chairmen and directors to allow the manager to take all the stick – and only react by sacking him when they themselves are the targets of the abuse. Right now the Celtic hierarchy are to some extent immune because there are no crowds in the stadium, but what strength will they show when that changes?
Before dispensing with the manager I hope they will reflect carefully on their own performance over the past decade or so. For the vast majority of that time they have been operating in a one-horse race, which put massive pressure on them to show vision and insight with regard to the way forward in a changing world.
What is clearly established in all walks of life is that if you stand still you effectively go backwards. It’s vital to look continually to go forward.
Did they consider it enough to achieve ten in a row? Achieving twenty in a row without mixing consistently with the elite of Europe should not have been considered acceptable. Succeeding relentlessly in a league where a club has individual players earning more than ten out of the eleven opposing teams is hardly a basis for acclaim.
Real ambition to join the elite was essential. Not that this could have been achieved easily – for two main reasons. First, revenues in the Scottish football world remain miles behind England, in particular, because of the dearth of serious TV money. That means paying players at the English level is not easy.
Second, young developing players see the SPFL as a stepping-stone to the riches of the English Premier League – or even the Championship. So Virgil Van Dijk and Stuart Armstrong head for Southampton, Kieran Tierney goes to Arsenal, and even Moussa Dembele opts for Lyon – no doubt as another stopover to England.
Let’s not accept that the profit from each sale always justifies the decision to sell, not for a club with Celtic’s potential. It’s different if you’re an Ajax, who have much less international appeal, but possess a fantastic academy. Which begs another question – since Tierney, which seriously talented youngster has come through the Celtic academy?
Buying some sub-standard replacements, albeit good enough to keep winning Scottish titles, simply guarantees that real progress arising from vision and long-term commitment is extremely unlikely.
That vision should have been to join the European elite – and make exclusion from the English Premier League impossible. Keeping, and paying for, a top-class team – and competing regularly in the late stages of the Champions League should have been the real target. The under 21s could be playing, and developing, in the SPFL.
Would Brendan Rodgers have found Leicester City a more attractive proposition in these circumstances?
I am aware that overtures to join the Premier League have been made. But they must have been very easy to resist. How much more difficult would it be to reject a genuine European powerhouse on their doorstep? A powerhouse which would have enjoyed massively increased international attention – and which carried huge pulling power.
The ambition should be to add the name of Celtic to those of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester United, Juventus, and Paris St Germain, as some of the world’s top football brands.
And to be playing them regularly with an even chance of success.