For a number of months it has been more about how Celtic extricate themselves from such a dismal position than how they got there. As Ross County delivered a final blow to Neil Lennon, it was pointed out the struggling Dingwall club had replaced a manager in between bouncing Celtic out of the League Cup and this rather unsurprising Premiership result. The Celtic board were portrayed as dallying dunces.
Awful recruitment and an unhealthy focus on the all-consuming pursuit of 10 domestic titles in a row – so what? – ultimately led to Celtic’s behind-closed-doors implosion. Celtic’s hierarchy should have sensed trouble when Ferencvaros dumped the side out of the Champions League, with subsequent decisions to stick with the management team limiting options for succession and eventually leaving Lennon in a dire position. Failure to win 11 of 30 league games thus far is extraordinary given the general paucity of opposition. An earlier refusal to sell key assets, in a departure from Celtic’s business model, was with a view to preserving domestic dominance but allowed unrest to fester.
Football doesn’t work this way but someone, somewhere should tell the Celtic supporters about the rationale attached to the disastrous – and expensive – signings of Shane Duffy, Vasilis Barkas, Patryk Klimala and Albian Ajeti. These players aren’t the cause of Celtic’s fall from grace but they are symptomatic of the reasons behind it. With James Forrest injured Celtic have no available out-and-out winger, an astonishing scenario for a club which celebrates players in that position. Recruitment departments are vital in these restricted times; while the buck stops with Lennon, Celtic’s has failed spectacularly.
Good wishes delivered by power brokers won’t ease Lennon’s pain as he steps away. He is immersed in Celtic, a club he has previously managed to great success at home and in Europe. This collapse, rendered more stark by Rangers’ imperious form, will wound Lennon more than any of his noisy detractors. Week after week, he had no option but to defend a regime – his regime – that he knew was failing. Reactionary behaviour at the club is emphasised by the fact that had the result been favourable, the manager would still be limping on until an inevitable summer parting of ways.
Lennon realised only too well that a rump of the Celtic support didn’t want him after Brendan Rodgers beat a hasty retreat for Leicester. Yet the supposed alternatives at that 2019 juncture were fanciful or a far bigger gamble. This time, with the campaign over in all but name for Celtic, there is scope to appropriately plan for next season. Hiring a coach now, with so little at stake, looks futile. The landscape will look different, including for potential employees, in May.
Rodgers was rare as an elite manager who required professional rehabilitation but had an affection for Celtic. The club again need that wow factor as they look to re-engage disillusioned followers. Eddie Howe would provide it, with the former Bournemouth manager quietly linked with Celtic for a number of months now. Whether Howe has any inclination to move north is open to conjecture, notwithstanding the persuasive – and financial – powers of Dermot Desmond.
Celtic require resource. Linked to that, they need someone capable of resolving a host of personnel issues by the time next season gets under way. Barkas’s inadequacy means goalkeeper is a glaring issue. So, too, centre-back as Duffy returns to Brighton and Christopher Jullien recovers from long-term injury. Both full-back areas are weak. The continued reliance on a creaking, 35-year-old Scott Brown in midfield is problematic. Ryan Christie, Odsonne Édouard and Kristoffer Ajer – sellable commodities – have little more than a year on their contracts, with values negatively affected by that, form and the pandemic. This isn’t the job for a rookie, even before the fiscal boost to Rangers available from potential Champions League qualification. Steven Gerrard’s domestic success at Rangers has arrived in season three of his tenure; Celtic have no such leeway.
It remains bizarre that Celtic wouldn’t move to allow Dominic McKay, their next chief executive, to leave the Scottish Rugby Union before the summer. Instead, McKay will start in the midst of this inevitable, huge overhaul. Celtic would rail against any notion that they are behind the times but they need to be a more modern, data-driven club. The scoffing reaction to the coach Gavin Strachan using an iPad by the side of the field during the defeat is telling regarding wider attitudes in the Scottish game. Celtic’s necessary reset provides opportunity.
Contrary to popular belief, managing Celtic isn’t a soft option. The club’s scale and dependency on winning – the latter is not matched even by big clubs in England – make the role far from straightforward. Virtually automatic entry to European football in some form makes a job such as this hold appeal. Topple Rangers and a legacy is yours. Celtic are in the unusual position of having a decent window amid which to shape their future. They must use it wisely.