Celtic statement shows board is going all-in on Hearts Scottish Cup final, Neil Lennon and Rangers chase
After Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Celtic and St Johnstone, you knew some sort of official correspondence would come.
Twitter notifications for Celtic FC were turned on, club website refreshed constantly, fans forums and news aggregation sites scoured relentlessly. Surely Celtic could not stay quiet after falling 13 points behind Rangers in the Premiership title race?
Then, at 7.06pm on Monday, the communication came. Celtic released a statement from the board clarifying the future of embattled manager Neil Lennon, staring fan rebellion and protests in the face on the back of a wretched run of form.
Despite winning two of his past 12 matches – an unforgivable state of affairs by Celtic’s standards – Lennon was given the vote of confidence from his superiors. Normally the word “dreaded” is put before such a thing, but on this occasion the Northern Irish coach will have been relieved to read the appraisal, given that in the wake of the St Johnstone draw, he sounded like a man who had come to terms with his fate.
What the statement said
"In light of the ongoing speculation regarding the position of our football manager, Neil Lennon, the Board of Celtic Football Club wishes to make clear its continuing support for Neil and his backroom team,” the Celtic statement read.
“The Board recognises and understands the importance of winning the league championship this season and that, as Neil himself has made clear, recent performances and results have been disappointing. The Board is committed to delivering success for Celtic supporters.
“The Board has carefully considered the current circumstances and the challenges that we are faced with, not least the pressure on the management and players to deliver the tenth championship in a row that is so important to us all. Equally important is to continue to operate according to our Club’s values. The Board has come to the conclusion that our collective objective is best served by continuing to support Neil and his team as they seek solutions for those challenges.”
Look at fixture list and cross fingers
There was wailing, naturally, from the anti-Lennon camp, which is swelling in numbers after every match. While the post-match scenes on Sunday, when a small group of Celtic fans confronted the team bus and threw objects at it, represent an almost militant minority, most level-headed Celtic supporters are now turning against the manager now. It has become increasingly hard to stomach what is being served up by the nine-times-in-a-row champions. Ponderous play, defensive deficiencies, attacking inadequacies. You look at the fixture list and now every match appears hazardous.
That’s what Celtic majority shareholder Dermot Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell have done, though. They’ve looked at Celtic’s upcoming matches and clearly see a couple of paths they can go down. It reads Lille at home in the Europa League, a dead rubber, followed by Kilmarnock at home, the Scottish Cup final against Hearts, Ross County at home, Hamilton away, Dundee United at home before climaxing with Rangers away on January 2.
It’s a jam-packed schedule. For a Celtic team at least firing on even half-cylinders, most of the matches are very winnable. Alas, this version of Celtic is spluttering. Nevertheless, the board are clearly banking on Kilmarnock coming to Parkhead and being vanquished. Alex Dyer’s men are one of the weaker teams Celtic could face in this dismal rut they are in, but the Ayrshire men might say the same about them too. Celtic’s aura has gone, smashed into a thousand pieces by inept performances.
Gambling on the quadruple treble
The league list is kind to Lennon, but there is also the spectre of the Scottish Cup final a week on Sunday. Desmond doesn’t speak much, but from past conversations with journalists, the man clearly riles against mass uprising. He has “values”, as stated in the club’s statement. He will want to give Lennon the opportunity to defeat Hearts at Hampden, a club that resides a league beneath them and, while clearly of Premiership quality, hardly setting the heather alight right now in the Championship. Claiming the trophy would secure the quadruple treble, a feat even rarer than Desmond’s public appearances. It would be an astonishing achievement and could kick-start Celtic’s season. Defeat to Hearts, however, would be terminal.
Celtic are gambling on beating Kilmarnock and Hearts (forget Lille this Thursday, that doesn’t matter), and building some sort of momentum before they next face Rangers. They have been to the blackjack table already, punting on a win against Ross County which backfired, before doubling down on beating St Johnstone. That failed too. There can’t be many more chips to play with.
Buying more time?
Of course, perhaps Desmond and Lawwell are buying themselves more time, to find the right man to replace Lennon. That would go against the “values” they are adhering to right now, but good business sense suggests Celtic need some sort of succession strategy. The names loosely linked with the Celtic job – Eddie Howe, Marco Silva, Gordon Strachan, Martin O’Neill – are hardly going to appease a support so furious with its hierarchy. Give them a few weeks though and perhaps a diamond will have been unearthed, another Brendan Rodgers to ride in and save the day. Part of the reason Lennon is still in situ is because there is no outstanding candidate to replace him.
Celtic’s board is already haemorrhaging tonnes of credibility with its fanbase during this run of form and uprising. After Monday night’s statement, they would lose what they have left if they pulled the trigger on Lennon even if the unthinkable happens and Kilmarnock claim victory this weekend. While not in the same precarious position as Lennon, the spotlight is well and truly on them. They have backed their man as much as they can. But with Rangers running rampant on the domestic front, the January 2 showdown becomes so important. All at Celtic will desperately hope that the board’s loyalty to Lennon has not resulted in the goose, perhaps already cooked, being cremated before then.