Celtic at crossroads after Lennon departure

Neil Lennon has endured so many setbacks, so many furores, so many humiliations at the helm of Celtic this season, only to continue in his post, that it almost felt a surprise when the end of his second stint as manager was announced on Wednesday morning.

Lennon has paid the price for a shockingly poor campaign which has spelled the end of nine seasons of uninterrupted domestic dominance. Celtic’s defeat at the hands of a struggling Ross County side who had already dumped them out of the League Cup came after a run of five consecutive victories, but those wins scarcely made up for a January in which Celtic managed just one victory in a month marred by the uproar around the club’s tone-deaf winter break in Dubai and multiple players later going into quarantine.

Performances have been insipid, the mood among supporters is grim and the dream of a record-breaking tenth consecutive league title is all but dead.

A gulf in class between Glasgow’s two bitter rivals has been visible for a decade now, except it is suddenly Rangers who enjoy an almost ludicrously large lead at the top of the table after years of toil. It almost seems as though the two sides have become incapable of standing on an equal footing: one side must be dominant while the other hovers near crisis.

The task for Lennon’s successor will be to rejuvenate a demotivated squad and establish a tactical approach which allows Celtic to match their neighbours’ newfound domestic consistency and impressive ability to navigate tricky European fixtures.

The manager tasked with achieving this is unlikely to be unveiled before the summer. Concrete links with candidates are yet to materialise – early suggestions have included Eddie Howe and Red Bull Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch, while more ambitious speculation has linked Rafa Benitez and Roberto Martinez (assisted by former Celtic favourite Shaun Maloney) to the post.

Celtic have previously been unafraid of left-field managerial choices from the continent – Wim Jansen being a success story, Jozef Vengloš and Ronny Deila less so – making Slavia Prague boss Jindřich Trpišovský perhaps the most intriguing suggestion so far; his demonstrated ability to dominate a mid-level European league while regularly bloodying the noses of bigger hitters in Europe would fit the brief perfectly.

This managerial choice represents a significant crossroads for a club who must arrest their recent slide, but it is one they must navigate without key boardroom figures. Longstanding Chief Executive Peter Lawwell is retiring in the summer, with Scottish Rugby Union’s Chief Operating Officer Dominic McKay set to replace him. Majority shareholder Dermot Desmond would surely wish to involve McKay in discussions about the club’s future direction, but any efforts made to secure his services before July have clearly failed, as the SRU have confirmed McKay will stay in his post until the summer.

The new board must also focus on improving Celtic’s transfer dealings, particularly in terms of outgoings. While fans are rarely pleased to see top performers moving on, these sales have formed a key part of Celtic’s financial model, with the likes of Moussa Dembélé, Virgil Van Dijk and Stuart Armstrong being sold for sizeable profits in recent years, alongside academy products like Kieran Tierney. Odsonne Edouard ought to be next in that line of exports, but the pandemic-induced decrease in prices leaves you wondering whether Celtic’s chance to extract maximum value from their star striker has come and gone.

As for Lennon, the long-time servant should nevertheless be reflected on as someone who made immense contributions to Celtic as both player and manager. Martin O’Neill brought Lennon with him from Leicester envisioning a key role for him in midfield, lofty expectations which Lennon lived up to. His last two seasons in Glasgow saw him become club captain, enjoying league victories in both campaigns. His first stint as manager delivered three consecutive league titles, participation in the Champions League knockout stages and an unforgettable victory over Barcelona.

While some fans nevertheless regarded Lennon’s full-time return to Parkhead in 2019 as a backwards step, the circumstances after Brendan Rodgers’ sudden departure meant Lennon became the practically unavoidable choice. A caretaker was required for the rest of the season, much as it is now, and the newly unemployed Lennon was by far the safest choice available. Lennon’s subsequent success in steering Celtic to the league title and a third consecutive Scottish Cup victory meant that the board could scarcely look elsewhere.

Another domestic treble followed in the Covid-affected 2019-20 season. The speed at which Celtic have subsequently unravelled is partially attributable to his tactical inflexibility, struggles to consistently motivate key players and poor handling of the public disquiet surrounding the Dubai trip, but laying the full blame at his door would only serve to distract from areas of deficiency across the whole club.