A year ago today, interim manager Neil Lennon took charge of his new Celtic side for the first time.
A whirlwind 24 hours earlier, the entire Celtic support had been hurled into disbelief. Recent murmurings and “in the know” hearsay had progressed overnight, from wild rumour to reality faster, even, than revere could turn into repulsion.
As news broke that the then Celtic manager had indeed sped off down the M6, just a day before our visit to Tynecastle – a stadium we had lost at on our previous two trips, conceding five and scoring none – incredulity quickly advanced to indignation.
Initially, much of the widespread anger was directed towards the boardroom. After all, it must have been their refusal to sufficiently back the manager in the January transfer window that led to his disillusionment, mustn’t it?
Once images began to circulate from the King Power Stadium, however, denial ceded to an engulfing animosity. Reality dawned, and the Celtic support’s fury fell at its rightful place.
No Celtic manager had ever voluntarily walked out on the club at such a vital stage of a season, and no true Celtic man ever would.
With Lennon immediately returning to take the reins until the end of the campaign, an element of familiarity ensured that the auguring air of uncertainty couldn’t fester.
What ensued in the capital the following evening was a display of raw, resolute, resilience.
As Odsonne Edouard volleyed in the 92nd minute winner, the release from the players, management and support signified the emotional impact the previous 48 hours had had. From such dramatic upheaval, potentially pushing us to the brink of turmoil, to an unwavering reminder of this side’s irrepressible desire for success.
Six wins from the remaining ten league matches, with only two by more than a single goal margin, meant the conclusion of Celtic’s 8th consecutive league title was characterised more by determination and endeavour than the sumptuous swagger of previous campaigns.
Considering the circumstances, though, and having sealed an unprecedented Treble Treble with victory in the Scottish Cup Final, the culmination of the 18/19 season was more about intense gratification than enthralling entertainment.
While Celtic had been grinding out results, at times stumbling over the finish line, the conversation amongst the fans and much of the media had turned to who would permanently replace the now Leicester boss.
With performances often lacking a clear, coherent gameplan, and Neil Lennon himself expressing his surprise at the evolution the club had made behind-the-scenes during his time away, it had been expected that the board would look in a new direction concerning the future of the club.
High-profile managers were linked, and numerous discussions (at least among supporters and fan-led media) centred around the requirement for structural improvements at the club, developing a long-standing identity to ensure that any future managerial changes could transition as seamlessly as possible.
Then, amidst the jubilation of the Cup Final celebrations – with almost every Celtic supporter having put the managerial question to the back of their minds – the news came through that Neil Lennon had been offered the job on a full-time basis.
The reaction amongst supporters was divided, as had the entire discussion been regarding the idea of Lennon staying on. At the time, I sat in the ‘disappointed’ side of the camp. I had previously written for the 90 Minute Cynic, about Celtic’s need for a clear, comprehensive review, outlining an in-depth strategy and evaluating all possibilities before considering the number one target for the job.
Whilst I summarised my reasons why I didn’t believe Lennon to be the ideal candidate, I expressed my frustration at the nuclear, polarising discussion taking place between supporters, with each counterarguing section of the fanbase seemingly vilifying the other.
The following summer months appeared to continue along this trend. Critics of Neil Lennon were castigated as not believing in a real Celtic man; supporters of his were labelled as footballing dinosaurs.
Having been ardently backed by those in the boardroom (at least in terms of support), and with a full pre-season with the players behind him, Neil Lennon’s side comfortably progressed through the first two qualifying rounds of the Champions League, scoring 13 goals in the process.
Whereas in his interim role Lennon’s demeanour had appeared withdrawn, unwilling to make drastic changes to a record-breaking side, under his new authority as permanent manager, he began to implement his own ideas onto the Celtic team. The 7-0 demolition of St. Johnstone in opening game of the season was followed up by a promising 1-1 away draw with CFR Cluj in the Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round.
The following fixture, though another emphatic victory, offered the first glimpse of Celtic’s weakness under Lennon. Whilst Celtic ran out resounding 5-2 victors at Fir Park, the pattern of the game, particularly during the first half, highlighted the new-look Celtic’s inability to exert control over proceedings in the way that had become expected under the previous manager.
If the Motherwell game had hinted at frailties in Celtic’s capability to dictate proceedings, the return leg at home to Cluj aired them in all their ignominy. Selection issues and tactical misjudgements contributed to a devastating collapse which saw Celtic crash out at the 3rd round of the Champions League qualifiers to a lower ranked side for the second year in a row.
Whilst many may not want to admit to it now, anyone inside Celtic Park a few days later as Celtic took on Dunfermline in the League Cup Second Round, will recall the exasperation already emanating from the stands. The game kicked off to an unfamiliar backdrop with the Green Brigade carrying out a silent protest throughout the match. The initial eerie atmosphere rapidly advanced into one more sinister, with the crowd becoming restless. A sense of anger and vitriol threatened to turn poisonous at any moment.
As ridiculous as it seems looking back now, at that moment in time, as is the nature of the Celtic manager’s position, it felt like Neil Lennon was just a few bad results away from losing his job.
From that moment, though, when the stakes have been highest, Neil Lennon has got (almost) every crucial decision right.
The victory at Ibrox on 1st September dismissed any notion that Lennon’s tactical knowledge and preparation was no longer up to scratch.
The Europa League group campaign, particularly back-to-back defeats of Lazio and redemption over Cluj, demonstrated Lennon’s tactical nous and flexibility on the European stage, topping a group in continental competition for the first time in our history, and doing so with a game spare.
I’m not going to attempt to rewrite history and pretend to have always been onboard with the Neil Lennon appointment, nor claim to agree with every tactical decision he makes, but what I, and every other fan who had previously held reservations, have always hoped for, was that such a genuine icon of the club would prove us all wrong.
This time last year, the entire club (supporters, players, and staff who remained) were slung into a state of shock which threatened to derail our title charge and send us spiralling into disarray.
From struggling to impersonate his predecessor as interim manager, to surpassing his achievements on the European stage with an expression of authenticity.
Though the element of control during matches is still, at times, the greatest concern of this side, under Neil Lennon’s tutelage, Celtic have progressed from a stale, stuttering team, at risk of an identity crisis, into a relentless, vibrant, goalscoring machine, led by a man who needs no pre-rehearsed soundbites to proclaim his passion for the club.
A year ago today, he led us for the first time since his return to Celtic. It was a night charged with raw emotion – apprehension, anger, and vindication.
Tonight, Neil Lennon leads us into the Europa League Last 32 Second Leg, seeking to take Celtic beyond the first knockout phase of European competition for the first time since 2004. It promises to be another night filled with emotion, but, this time, one of anticipation, expectation and belief.
This Celtic side are constantly adapting and evolving. Just like their manager.
What a difference a year makes.