Neil Lennon selected the same consecutive starting XI today as Celtic defeated Motherwell 3-0. A brave decision in the face of heavy criticism of Wednesday night’s team selection, or a purposeful statement from the manager, and a challenge to his players to prove their worth and commitment to the club?
Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, Lennon must be congratulated for achieving what was required following the European disappointment, especially considering his proactivity in making in-game tactical alterations which made a significant impact on the pattern of today’s match.
Performance-wise there wasn’t much between Wednesday night’s display and the first half of today’s game, but, similarly to last year’s turgid, and borderline toxic, League Cup fixture against Dunfermline (which followed the Champions League qualifier defeat to Cluj), what was essential was a positive result in ensuring that negativity doesn’t fester. The fact that the side showed marked signs of improvement and purpose as today’s game grew was an added bonus which should provide a further confidence boost.
Following that extra-time victory last summer, Celtic were able to push forward and put the disappointing European performance behind them. The upcoming international break now gives everybody involved with Celtic an opportunity to do likewise, providing the time and space to rest, review and then prepare again before the league and Europa League qualifiers resume shortly.
The criticism of the club has been rife in the past few days following the Ferencvaros fallout – with most of it fair and warranted. However, one issue that at times seems to have crept into the conversation – not least in the polarised environment of social media – appears to be a blurred line between what can be considered rational tactical managerial criticism, and excessive personal insults aimed towards Neil Lennon. With the latter unquestionably unacceptable.
When justifiable critical comments are made though, these should also not be misconstrued as an indictment of Lennon’s character, nor a desire to see him fail. It’s hard to imagine there’s a single Celtic supporter alive who wants to see that happen.
It doesn’t really need to be said that Neil Lennon is amongst the most iconic figures in Celtic Football Club’s illustrious history. He has been a hero, an idol, and a leader of the club throughout the majority of the past two decades, and whilst those are not solely the reasons he shouldn’t have to face personal abuse – of course nobody should, regardless of their stature – they also do not, or at least should not, exempt him from reasonable on-field criticism regarding current, and particularly reoccurring, perceived footballing errors of judgement.
Widely being regarded as one of the greatest, or at least most innovative, managers of the modern era does not absolve Pep Guardiola of his own very vocal critics, particularly, too, when surprising tactical decisions on the European stage are concerned. That doesn’t diminish his spectacular accomplishments as a manager, and occasional question marks over Neil Lennon’s tactical decisions should not be considered an attempt to do likewise regarding his achievements throughout his association with Celtic.
With the extra challenges that everyone has had to face this year likely to have had an impact on the severity with which we react to disappointments, the current break in club football now provides an opportunity for the support to move past and not dwell on the discussion of the Champions League failure, to focus instead on the remaining goals ahead for the season, particularly considering the extraordinary extra pressures placed upon those in charge to deliver the title this year.
If there truly are any disruptive influences within the camp, and if player sales are definitively required following our early Champions League exit, then let’s hope they are both minimal and conducted quickly, so that Neil Lennon can have as much time as possible to get his squad in shape for this most important of seasons and before the next round of European qualifiers begin.
The management team and players should now be granted this break to themselves consider and address what went wrong and why, away from a backdrop of negativity.
Everybody, including critics themselves, want the entire club – board, manager and players alike – to succeed and silence doubters in the same way they proved to last season.
The fairytale of our ex-captain going on to bookend the greatest domestic achievement in Scottish football history as manager is not overlooked, and though the increased anxiety of this season will undoubtedly invite regular reactionary comment, these next few days at least offer the perfect time for the board, manager, players and supporters to collectively reflect, refresh and regroup.
Here we go…