March 2010 saw Tony Mowbray being asked to go out into the ‘garden’ and Neil Lennon to come back in from the cold and take charge. The fans welcomed this appointment and despite a run of victories in the league an indelible stain marked the opening chapter as the team suffered an embarrassing defeat to Ross County in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final. Lennon’s response to this was typical and he spoke to the media in a manner which I welcomed;
“See projects? Forget it. I’m sick of hearing it. I’m sick of hearing about two- and three-year plans. I don’t buy into it. It’s about now. You don’t have time as a Celtic or Rangers manager. Projects are something my daughter does at school. I’m a football man, only interested in results, performances and players. I don’t care about two years’ time. I might not bloody be here.”
The team stumbled into 2nd spot and a Summer of uncertainty began as the Board understandably took time to confirm Lennon’s appointment – an event which took place at the beginning of June 2010. Given the failings of recent seasons and the club now existing within a financially uncertain world the Celtic Board did not exactly throw their weight completely behind Lennon with a Director of Football being sought with reports of Giovanni Trapattoni and Stuart Baxter filling column inches. When all was said and done though Lennon led the team into the Champions League qualifiers.
When the draw for this tournament was made we learnt we would face S.C. Braga from Portugal. I naively and arrogantly celebrated this draw obviously either unable or unwilling to fully accept the demise of my team since 2003 and being swept along with Lennon’s appointment. I was judging ‘Lennon the Manager’ from my memories of ‘Lennon the Player – snarling, tough, strong and overall, a winner.
Prior to this match Lennon had added 5 players to the squad, namely Cha Du Ri, Mulgrew, Juarez (full backs), Ledley (midfielder) and Murphy (striker). Two noticeable absences from the team that night were goalkeeper Artur Boruc and winger Aiden McGeady. Both these players had been important to the squad in recent years but were sold from a business point of view with the club gaining around £10m from the sales. Celtic slumped to a 3-0 defeat which I suffered on a stilted internet stream which unfortunately could not mask how poor we looked with the defence being torn apart and the strikers unable to record a shot on target. Our Champions League exit (4-2 on agg.) was effectively confirmed in the 20th minute of the return leg as S.C. Braga scored a very cheap away goal again showing up our defensive frailties before Hooper and Juarez scored on their home debuts. Gary Hooper had been recruited from Scunthorpe in the period between the games against Braga and had scored in his first game (a friendly against Arsenal) before his first competitive game and goal. The Europa League adventure was just as short-lived if not even more embarrassing with the team going down 4-2 on aggregate to dutch outfit FC Utrecht. Celtic had won 2-0 at home, however, lost 4-0 in the away leg.
The outcry against Lennon was growing louder with fans citing the Ross County result alongwith the European defeats as evidence that Lennon was not the man for the job and the club were simply taking the cheap option. My support for Lennon remained and I recall citing the early showings of Hooper, Juarez and Kayal (a further recruit) as being evidence that Lennon should be given time to build his team. The hurt of missing out on Europe was defiantly hidden by my insistence to gloating Rangers fans that the League was always our priority and this would free up our time and energy to concentrate on this.
This mission began well as the team rebounded from Europe with 9 straight league victories scoring 16 goals and conceding a miserly 4 goals. The team went 4 games without losing a game or conceding a goal for the first time since 1906/1907 but could not match the feat of that season by going 5 without conceding. Further additions to the squad saw Fraser Forster (goalkeeper), Emilio Izaguirre (full back), Daniel Majstorovic (centre half) and Antony Stokes (striker) all sign bringing the number of new additions to 10.
Rangers were going toe-to-toe with us and both clubs arrived at the first Old Firm match having failed to drop a point. Unfortunately Celtic blinked first losing 3-1 at home. Again the critics were loud with the charge of “Lennon can’t win big games” being levied at him from both fans and the media. My support was also wavering as the team went on to drop a further 9 points before New Year with draws being snatched from the jaws of victory against the likes of Inverness Caley Thistle.
I went along with friends to watch the New Year Old Firm match and was heard to question when was the last time we done anything meaningful in one of these matches. Our memories were worryingly strained and the conclusion was reached that it may have been a Scott McDonald winner in a 1-0 victory at Ibrox. Lennon pulled a brave surprise by changing the teams formation opting for a 4-5-1 approach with Samaras as the lone striker and Charlie Mulgrew being brought back in to the team in midfield (a choice which my old man predicted the night before!!!). We matched Rangers in the physical stakes (something which had previously been missing) and earned a deserved 2-0 victory courtesy of Samaras’ boot. Lennon had shaken the “doesn’t win big games” charge and the team played with an assurance and style which had been missing for the past few seasons.
At the time of writing this Celtic sit 5 points clear of Rangers albeit they have 2 games in hand. The team have earned a 2-2 draw in the Scottish Cup against Rangers whilst playing 11 v 10 for most of the match and being behind twice. In attack we are looking threatening particularly with the development of a Hooper-Stokes partnership ably supported by fleeting appearances of Samaras. The teams style involves attacking full-backs with Emilio Izaguirre impressing more and more as the weeks go past. Our midfield is typically made up of Brown, Ledley, Kayal and Kris Commons (an impressive January transfer window acquisition). Lennon has instilled a work ethic upon the team which involves playing quick, sharp and incisive football when with the ball and a high level of energy, dig and hassling when without it. 4-4-1-1 (of sort) has been the favoured formation changing to a 4-1-4-1 against Rangers in order to match them and take control of the midfield. In addition to Izaguirre the emergence of Beram Kayal (Lennon-esque), Gary Hooper and Antony Stokes has filled me with great joy.
Our line-up against S.C. Braga on 28th Jul. 2011:
Cha Du Ri Loovens Hooiveld Mulgrew
Juarez Brown Ledley Ki Sung Yeung
Our line-up against Dundee Utd on 13th Feb. 2011:
Wilson Majstorovic Mulgrew Izaguirre
Brown Ledley Kayal Commons
Celtic are now playing with confidence and, whilst there is still some room for improvement (most notably within the central defensive areas), I am beginning to enjoy watching my beloved Celtic again. Lennon has brought a mix of aggression and style to the club and althought prizes are never handed out in February the team are currently still on track for a domestic treble – let’s hope it is achieved and a poor start ends with a glorious finish!!!