Saturday, March 16, 2013

On the importance of Neil Lennon staying at Celtic

Only 17 men have had the distinction of managing Glasgow Celtic in 125 years. Of those 17, only eight were in charge for three years or less - Liam Brady (1991-93), Lou Macari (93-94), Tommy Burns (94-97), Wim Jansen (97-98), John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish (99-2000) and Tony Mowbray (09-10). And presently, Neil Lennon is the eighth - this is only his third full season at the helm (but he's in charge three-and-a half years having taking over from Mowbray in March 2010 on a temporary basis initially).

It feels like longer, with the excruciating lows (the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Ross County in 2010 and the League Cup final final reverse to Rangers in 2011, not to mention to the terrible sectarian abuse suffered by Lennon personally) made bearable by the return of the European highs it seemed were beyond the reach of clubs operating in the SPL - with the 125th birthday victory over Barcelona epitomizing all the great things Celtic has achieved in its existence.

But the most important thing was returning the SPL title to the club last season after a four year drought. The domestic league is the bread and butter, so to speak, and should be the priority every season - no matter who the challengers are - as it is the platform upon which the other success is built. As for Lennon himself, he feels his biggest achievement is the money raked in from this season's European run which should guarantee the club financial stability for the next four years.

Now look at the eight names mentioned above. The first two, Liam Brady and Lou Macari had the misfortune of finding themselves simultaneously combating off-field financial difficulties and Rangers' seemingly unstoppable race to ten-in-a-row.

While Macari's defensive style of play yielded success in the lower leagues of English football, it was never going to satisfy the Celtic fans, even though he was an ex-player. Brady moved on to Brighton & Hove Albion after an unsuccessful spell in Scotland (during which he oversaw the infamous 5-1 away defeat to Swiss side Neuchâtel Xamax in the 91/92 UEFA Cup), but his managerial career never really took off. His best work has come during his time as Head of Youth Development at Arsenal (a role he will leave in 2014), while his spell as Giovanni Trapattoni's assistant for the Republic of Ireland was hugely beneficial to the squad. Both men left Parkhead trophyless.

As for Burns, he brought an attractive style of play to the table and while he couldn't break Rangers' dominance either, he did win the Scottish Cup in 1995 which was the club's first piece of silverware since Billy McNeill won the same competition six years earlier. Sadly, he couldn't build on this success and was sacked in 1997.

And then Wim Jansen came in for the 97/98 season, brought future legend Henrik Larsson with him, as well as a number of other players, and put a stop to ten-in-a row as well as securing the Scottish Cup. This short stint was followed by another as Dr. Jozef Vengloš pitched up in Glasgow for a year. Unlike Jansen, though he left trophyless but his legacy lies in the players he brought to the club - Johan Mjallby, Mark Viduka and, of course, 'The Magician', Lubo Moravčík. Vengloš also delivered a
5-1 hammering of Rangers.

The Barnes/Dalglish debacle of 1999/2000 is barely worth mentioning. Barnes is most notable for signing defender Rafael Scheidt for £4.8 million and for over-seeing the defeat to Inverness which sparked the famous headline 'SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS'. Dalglish was left to pick up the pieces and despite winning the League Cup it was scant consolation after a bruising campaign, the ghost of which only a certain Martin O'Neill was able to put to rest with a domestic treble the next season.

The nineties represented the only turbulent time managerially in the club's history and much of this was combined with the turbulence off the field as the club nearly went into receivership. Tony Mowbray aside (whose reign was disastrous in its own right as he managed the club without the threat of receivership looming large, while he enjoyed enough clout to sign Robbie Keane on a lucrative six month loan deal), the previous thirteen years have shown that stability can breed success at the highest level of professional football, even in a limited financial environment.

And Neil Lennon has had to work within these constraints more than any of his recent predecessors. He has had to trawl through smaller leagues to find high quality players for less money with a view to selling them on for a profit - and after Celtic's Champions League last-16 exit to Juventus, he admitted this was his exact remit. The rebuilding is likely to have already started with the scouting department scouring the globe for the next Victor Wanyama and Emilio Izaguirre.

In all, the key word is stability. Today, Celtic beat Aberdeen 4-3 at Parkhead having been 3-1 down with a half hour left to play. This narrow victory followed last week's last minute 3-2 defeat at the hands of Ross County. With the club now finally out of the Champions League there was always a risk of complacency setting in and this was evident at times today as some casual play and sloppy defending left Celtic in a relatively perilous position. However, the recovery and result maintained Celtic's 15 point gap at the top of the table.

The phrase "Lennon warns against complacency" brings up various results on Google, headlining previews to various games, from Arbroath to Spartak Moscow. His own motivation is a fear of the sack but it can be tempting for Celtic players to take their foot off the gas when they presume a job can be done with minimum fuss. The Champions League would have been the carrot for a lot of Celtic's bigger players who have been linked with moves away from the club - the shop window where they can demonstrate their ability to play and compete at the highest level. With that gone, perhaps some of the players have one eye on the exit door.

Neil Lennon is passionate about the club and understands what the club needs to do to survive, and this is why he is so important to the future of the club. He not only fears the sack but wants Celtic to push on and become a regular in Europe's elite competition. He is also somebody who will not allow complacency to set in,  nor will he allow his those who have been linked with moves away to forget that it is their time at Celtic which made them sought after in the first place  - which is why it can be certain Lennon will have a few choice words for his players after today's game, despite the result.

What is also worth noting is that since being appointed Lennon's tactical prowess has improved dramatically, as evidenced by the club's Champions League run - seven wins of varying type were recorded this season. As Celtic progressed from qualifying rounds to the group stages, the wins changed in nature, becoming more about how the side were set up for each opponent and how they played their game whilst containing the opposition. But it wasn't all snatch-and-grab wins against better teams, just measured football of high quality.

In the SPL, Celtic can get away with making mistakes - like they did today against Aberdeen - as they have a superior level of player compared to other SPL clubs, but in the Champions League it was more important to get the tactics right, and Lennon did this for much of the campaign (check out for a comprehensive review of the tactics used against Barcelona at Parkhead).

The Juventus game was the exception as Celtic found it difficult to break down the Italians' 3-5-2 formation, which saw Gary Hooper isolated for much of the first leg - though the decision to play Efe Ambrose after the defender had only just returned from the African Nations Cup victory with Nigeria was a naive one, but one that Lennon will learn from. It is likely that Celtic would have been beaten even if Ambrose was left out of the first leg - as the Lurgan man said himself after the second leg in Turin, "class tells in the end."

However, with three qualifying rounds to negotiate to make it into next season's Champions League group stages - the first one starting as early as January - Lennon needs to stay on and must be given the necessary support  in order to hurdle the awkwardly placed ties. 
Good managers at decent rates are difficult to come by, but good managers at decent rates who care about the club as passionately as Neil Lennon cares about Celtic are even harder to find.

Chief executive Peter Lawell has said he feels Lennon will remain while the man himself has confirmed that he expects to stay, which is good news for the club - otherwise, a return to the instability of the nineties could result in a faltering of fortunes at Parkhead, even without the direct threat of Rangers for the foreseeable future.

No comments:

Post a Comment