What a difference a day makes

Yesterday – exactly 12 months on from Neil Lennon’s first game back in charge following our previous manager’s abrupt departure – with eager anticipation encompassing the Celtic support in the build up to the Europa League Last 32 2nd Leg, it felt like a good time to take a step back and reflect positively on the growth of this Celtic side throughout the past year.

In hindsight, though, it should have been obvious that when Celtic in Europe are concerned, there is never a good time for raised expectations.

After previous disastrous performances this season, there has always, though not necessarily immediately, appeared to be a reaction from the team.

The Cluj debacle was in some way rectified by such an outstanding group stage showing in the Europa League. The abysmal performance in the League Cup Final was excused because of the favourable outcome. The frequently turgid displays throughout December were, on the whole, similarly overlooked due to our consistency to grind out results. The year-ending derby defeat at home, at the time undoubtedly our biggest disappointment of the season since the Champions League collapse, posed the most serious questions regarding the decision to repeat such an uninspiring, passive gameplan almost mirroring the on-field pattern of the Cup Final.

However, following that defeat to Rangers, and our subsequent winter training camp, those issues, all too prevalent throughout December, seemed to have been addressed.

With a new formation, and the ability to comfortably transition in-game between 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, Celtic looked re-focused and re-energised. The relentless run of domestic form since the turn of the year has seen us pull clear in the league, and whilst the continued tendency to relinquish control during periods of games has persistently caused alarm, the eagerness from the sidelines to modify our tactical approach and counter opponents, has suggested an increased level of awareness and proactivity.

The indications were that Neil Lennon had once more adapted, acknowledged past experiences, and utilised them as lessons to learn from, in his continual pursuit to progress.

It was a sign of maturity and further evolution from the manager, and his side.

What happened last night was a catastrophic reality check. Mistakes that had appeared consigned to the history books were repeated in all their infamy as the ghosts of Cluj came haunting back on the European stage once again.

The emotional nature of football encourages overreaction. And though last night’s defeat in no way diminishes the domestic achievements of the season so far, especially during the last six weeks, it does underline the glaring inadequacies still prevalent in the decision making of the management and the players. Returning pressing concerns, that we’d hoped had, predominantly, been alleviated, to the fore.

When the lineup was released last night it was received with surprise. With Simunovic, Jullien and Ajer all in the side, but only one recognised centre forward in the starting XI, it was assumed that Elyounussi would play off Edouard in the front two of a 3-5-2, the formation which had been so successful in recent weeks.

Lennon’s clarification pre-match, that the shape would in fact begin as a back four, was met widely with frustration from the support, confused at the unnecessary alteration from a winning formula. The most alarming aspect, however, was not simply the formational tweak, but the decision to play Kristoffer Ajer out of position at right-back, breaking up his season-long central defensive partnership with Jullien, engineering Jozo Simunovic into the starting XI, whilst leaving our first choice right-back, Jeremie Frimpong, on the bench, where he remained throughout the game.

During the August disaster against Cluj, tactical tinkering saw one of Celtic’s most influential players forced out of position as Callum McGregor lined up in the left-back role, with Bolingoli left to watch on from the sidelines. That this type of mistake was repeated last night, again, in such a crucial match is indefensible.

Celtic play at their best when their best players are played in their natural positions. That shouldn’t be a controversial, nor complex, point of view.

The specific detail of Copenhagen’s first goal needs no analysis. However, much like the previously maligned Efe Ambrose, Simunovic should not be castigated alone for the incident. He simply should never have been placed in that position to begin with, and certainly following his first half showing, should have, at minimum, been removed from the situation long before the calamitous error occurred.

Throughout the first half Celtic had dominated proceedings without ever truly finding our attacking rhythm. Even so, Simunovic wasn’t alone in his battle against the pace of the game. Scott Brown, who had missed the weekend’s victory over Kilmarnock, was visibly unfit, although with no suitable replacement available it was at least understandable that the captain remained on the field. Yet, that no tactical changes were made whatsoever, during the interval, to mask our striking deficiencies in the middle of the park was particularly concerning.

Again, the sense of Deja vu from Cluj – where Ryan Christie’s post-match comments had alluded to a lack of half-time tactical changes – was overwhelming.

It took a further 19 minutes after the opening goal was scored, in the 51st minute, for Lennon to make his only substitution of the game. In the meantime, and following the change, Celtic’s gameplan had resorted to punting long balls upfield to desperately isolated figures, whilst struggling to cope with the pressure of each Copenhagen counter-attack.

While the issue of ceding control has been the recurrent hinderance throughout Celtic’s entire campaign, it, combined with an incompetence to effectively manage the game, has never appeared more prevalent than last night. With Celtic gifted a penalty through a bizarre handball, we found ourselves level in the tie with just 7 minutes of normal time remaining. In such a pressurised environment, and with such little time left on the clock, it was crucial to rediscover our composure and see the game out, ensuring an extra 30-minute period to reinforce ourselves on the contest and find a winning goal.

Instead, moments after the restart, with Jullien in possession just outside his own penalty area, only Ajer could be seen in his vicinity. A dangerous pass into the middle of the park and Rogic’s weak effort to chest the ball to his captain left Celtic entirely exposed as possession was turned over. Though at this stage the formation had been switched back to a 3-5-2, mere seconds after undeservedly drawing level, the wing-backs and midfield three should have been focused and intelligent enough to drop deep.

Winning the game in a frenetic final few minutes was not required. Staying in the tie was.

Against Cluj, 3 goals in 6 chaotic minutes sent Celtic crashing out of the tournament. It took 94 seconds for Copenhagen to score their second, and decisive, goal of the night following Edouard’s equalising penalty.

Strikingly, the parallels between the two fixtures appear endless.

As discussed yesterday, the development this side has shown throughout the past year is stark. Neil Lennon’s accomplishments this season domestically, and throughout the group phase of the Europa League campaign, have been exceptional.

Every Celtic supporter wants Neil Lennon to succeed as manager of the club, but the almost identical manner of the devastating defeats in the knockout rounds of both European competitions have simply been inexcusable, and aren’t exempt from criticism.

Whilst everybody wants what’s best for the club, being a supporter does not simply equate to being a cheerleader, turning a blind eye to each recurring and avoidable mistake.

Today, the manager must shoulder responsibility for the ineptitude of last night, and ensure that, this time, these lessons are learned. Conclusively.

What a difference a year day makes.

What a difference a year makes

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.

Invaluable Edouard eases January grumbles

Since returning from the winter break Celtic’s results have been exceptional. Six wins out of six, with 18 goals scored, have ensured the disastrous late December derby showing has been consigned to the darkness like a Hogmanay hangover.

Whilst results have been indomitable, performances have often told a different story. Fluctuating from the sublime to the ridiculous, and back again.

Throughout the last month we’ve seen an energised Celtic swat their opponents aside with fluid, dynamic football – in spells, the most entertaining exhibited in recent memory – yet, within the same 90 minute periods, calamitous lapses in concentration and control have emboldened lower-table sides to take us on at the other end of the park.

That is not necessarily to criticise, football played at the intensity Celtic are frequently demonstrating is impossible to endure, and whilst, at times, a little chaotic, at others (particularly the 1st half vs St Johnstone and 2nd half vs Motherwell), the relentless, one-touch, attacking displays have simply blown our opponents away.

At their best, the speed and impulsiveness of Celtic’s play has proved impossible to predict. Yet, with so much in football hinging on spontaneity, central to Celtic’s irresistible mayhem, has been Odsonne Edouard’s calculated excellence.

Every swivel of his hips, feint drop of the shoulder, flick through an opponent’s legs. Edouard is playing a game numerous steps ahead of the opposition.

With Leigh Griffiths assuming the number 9 position, Edouard’s awareness and intelligence to roam the pitch is rivalled only by his ability.

Throughout his time at Celtic we’ve witnessed Edouard drop deep or drift wide to receive possession, watching in awe as he ambles his way through packed defences with the ball stuck to his feet. However, it is the aura, and premeditation, with which he has been performing in recent weeks that has raised the bar once again.

Nothing that Odsonne Edouard is doing at the moment is by chance, his on-field assessment and meticulous precision is breathtaking. When Edouard drops deep to receive the ball he knows exactly what he’s going to do next. When he lends it to his teammate he’s already visualised where he’s going to receive it back.

A perfect example of this came with his first goal against Motherwell last night, after great work from Griffiths to win possession back on the halfway line, Brown fed Edouard just inside the Motherwell half. Edouard, in turn, laid the ball off to McGregor, and, as soon as he’d done so, burst away on the overlap to create space and demand it back. His second against Hamilton on Sunday was almost identical in style. Receiving a pass deep in the half from Jonny Hayes, Edouard drove towards goal before a fluid stepover and pass inside to Rogic allowed him the space to sprint through the Hamilton defence and slot the ball home with an, as-ever, composed first-time finish.

Although the results off the back of the winter break have seen Celtic pull seven points clear in the league (having played a game more than Rangers), many fans have been left disappointed with the January transfer window activity, or lack thereof.

Whilst some supporters have accused others of unnecessarily panicking, or to use their own words “bedwetting”, regarding the race for the title, it is entirely justified to want Celtic to be the best they can be in every aspect.

The narrative that seems to have been building: that hysteria has set in because of the defeat at the turn of the year and due to Rangers’ own activity in the transfer window, is simply false.

In an age where the majority of Celtic fans no longer use the ‘Old Firm’ tag – of course because of Rangers’ liquidation, but also having grown tired of the forced association with our rivals – it is exclusively because of hopes and expectations of Celtic Football Club, that some supporters were left disappointed with the lack of signings in January.

Celtic are a stand-alone entity, and as such Celtic’s strategy should be entirely independent to anything Rangers do. They are insignificant to our planning and transfer dealings.

The January transfer window offers the last opportunity to fully embed new players into the squad before the start of the European qualifiers in early summer. In this regard, many fans hoped for more forward thinking this January. That was all.

However, with Odsonne Edouard now performing at levels not seen in Scotland since Henrik Larsson, the board have an opportunity to to make a statement to the fans that they’re serious about progressing as a club, exceeding domestic dominance and developing at a continental level.

If they want to prove critics wrong and demonstrate they have continually advancing aspirations, they will do everything in their power to keep Odsonne Edouard at Celtic beyond the summer.

Sure, £30m+ may have a nice ring to it for those in charge of the chequebook, but players of Edouard’s quality are worth far more to Celtic than any sum.

Edouard is now playing at a level where he is simply irreplaceable.

Amidst the escalating pressure towards Celtic’s Holy Grail, Odsonne Edouard remains the most composed and calculated figure involved. Let’s make sure he’s here for the duration of it.

And there’s the thunder

What a day. What a beautiful Sunday.

Neil Lennon and his team were out to prove a point yesterday. A point to the mainstream media who have been cheerleading our noisy neighbours all summer; to said noisy neighbours who never, and will never, learn to just keep quiet, focus on their football, and wait to play the game when it comes around; and to people like me who have been tactically critical of our manager throughout the past few months.

Yesterday, Neil Lennon not only played a blinder on the park but off it too. His post-match comments were fantastic; we had been an afterthought during the coverage building up to the game, as had he, with all the attention placed on what Steven Gerrard was going to do.

Steven Gerrard did nothing. Rangers did nothing. While Neil Lennon put on a tactical masterclass. And, after doing so, called out his many doubters; myself included. It was vindication, and it was wonderful to see.

As Odsonne Edouard rugby punted the ball into touch with the first kick of the game I turned to my dad and questioned, “what the fuck was that?”

Again, I was wrong.

As Lennon stated after the game it was a symbolic move that told our opponents “we are going for you today.” That there would be no more passive passing, no more hiding, we were going to put them under pressure from the first second. We were there to win.

My personal highlight yesterday came from Scott Brown. Not for his performance per se, although it was a dominating one vastly improved from our previous visits to Ibrox, but for his own symbolic moment around the 15th minute mark as he snarled and gesticulated across the park, flexing his muscle and barking out orders as only Scott Brown can.

At that moment Scott Brown struck fear into his opponents, metaphorically pulling their pants down before his imitators would, latterly, struggle so desperately to do so, literally.

I have no idea about the upcoming forecast over Paradise. Perhaps there will be more clouds on the way. Perhaps nothing but a golden sky. What I do know for sure is that yesterday signified the return of the thunder to Neil Lennon and his side, and it felt fucking great to see.

Celtic’s Stockholm swagger clears the skies, but the storm may not be over

Last night’s fantastic result and performance ensured Celtic will play European football this season until at least Christmas.

As someone who is quick to condem when things go wrong, it is only right to now follow up last night’s result with praise for the players, Neil Lennon, and his management team for guiding us to such a resounding aggregate victory over the Swedish champions and into the Europa League group stages.

With what is still a makeshift defence (Ajer at right-back – then going off injured to be replaced by Ralston – with Bitton covering in the middle) there were a few shaky moments, particularly early on in the game, as has to be expected from an away Celtic performance in Europe, but once the second goal went in, immediately following AIK’s equaliser, the tie never looked in any doubt. After the break Celtic displayed the type of composure and exuded a level of authority and control over proceedings which I, alongside many others, have recently been crying out for.

Last night, Celtic looked like a team who, this time, knew their gameplan.

After the defeat to CFR Cluj and the turgid extra time victory over Dunfermline I wrote that the “management team need to get these ones right [the fixtures against AIK, Hearts and Rangers] or they are at risk of holding the record of having the shortest reign ever in the history of Celtic.” Since this time the response on the pitch has been terrific from both the management and the players. A comfortable home victory over AIK took the sting out of the developing negativity, with the defeat of Hearts that followed providing an opportunity for the rarely seen Bayo to shine as he deputised for the rested Edouard.

Concerning the last three games the only criticism I have regards the avoidable injuries picked up by both Kristoffer Ajer and Odsonne Edouard. Ajer has looked exhausted in the latter stages of each game recently yet remained on the park until the 87th minute against Hearts on Sunday, with Edouard needlessly featuring well beyond the hour mark last night. However, if, as was reported this morning, both will recover in time to play on Sunday these qualms will quickly be forgotten.

The emotional nature of football, particularly to the Celtic support, and the seismic significance of these early season fixtures both provoke and rationalise such erratically fluctuating opinions as have been witnessed over recent weeks. It seems that we are currently only ever one victory away from triumph, yet one defeat away from disaster. To me this comes down to two factors: the importance of the reward on the line, coinciding with an underlying doubt concerning all levels of management throughout the club.

I have previously discussed my reservations regarding Neil Lennon’s tactical capabilities and, particularly off the back of such a tremendous result, do not wish to do so further today.

For me, Sunday will provide the sternest test we have faced tactically so far this season. Whilst Rangers’ late victory over Legia Warsaw last night reminded me of their limited footballing ability, we know that come Sunday, backed by an almost entirely home support – and one no longer deprived of their “songbook” by the competition’s governing body – Rangers will come flying out the traps with a high-intensity press and look to force us into early mistakes. During the two Ibrox fixtures last season the occasion overwhelmed us; Sunday offers up a chance for Lennon to exhibit his tactical development and display his aptitude to outmanoeuvre Rangers’ gung-ho approach. On footballing ability alone we should not lose to the Ibrox side.

Despite expressing doubts about Neil Lennon I, invariably, hope to be proven wrong. Mistakes have been made that must be learned from, and whilst Ibrox presents one opportunity to convey that they have, the appearance of CFR Cluj in today’s Europa League group stage draw provides a chance at, in his own words, “retribution” for Lennon and his squad. Alongside CFR Cluj, Celtic will face Lazio and Stade Rennais in a challenging yet intriguing group.

Although I do not want to further discuss Neil Lennon’s tactical nous, one element of the club’s top level (mis)management that I believe must not be ignored remains the strategic “forward” planning inside the boardroom. Just as two shocking performances were not enough to bring down those that sit at the top table, the three good ones that followed should not cement their place back in the hearts of the Celtic fanbase.

It should not be forgotten why we, once again, find ourselves in a position where we are having to play key players out of position in our most important games. In this regard Lennon’s hands have been tied behind his back by the people above him.

Following last night’s qualification to the Europa League I have today read plenty of exuberant, sarcastic, and frankly staunch appraisals of the board at Celtic Park, declaring that the £12m spent so far, aided by the loan signings of Fraser Forster and Moritz Bauer, demonstrates the sterling work done this summer in strengthening the squad in our bid to qualify for European football, particularly when compared to the sums our domestic rivals have spent.

Two fundamental points are being missed in these appraisals:

Firstly, it is not the total figure that Celtic have spent which causes concern, but the number of first team players brought in (currently 5).
Since the end of last season Celtic have lost three right-backs (Lustig, Toljan, Gamboa) and signed two (El Hamed and Bauer), though one arrived after our exit from the Champions League qualifying rounds; we have lost two first team centre-halves (Boyata and Benkovic – sorry Marv) and signed one (Jullien); and, lost two left-backs (Tierney and Izaguirre) and signed one (Bolingoli).
As we entered our most important games of the season, we replaced seven (six if you discount Gamboa) defenders with three replacements. This was not an area of the squad where Celtic were overly bloated and needed to reduce numbers, besides Cristian Gamboa all of the players named above featured in a significant number of matches they were available for last season.
As well as this, all of the players listed were expected to leave the club this summer with Lustig, Gamboa, Boyata and Izaguirre coming to the end of their contracts, Toljan and Benkovic coming to the end of their loans, and Tierney heavily anticipated to join Arsenal.
In order to maintain the desired minimum of two players competing for each position, Celtic required no less than six defenders to be brought in during the transfer window.
Having known the aforementioned players would be departing for, at a minimum, the final six months of last season, why was there no forward planning to sufficiently replace them early in the window?
If the answer is that the desired targets were too expensive then that simply indicates further weaknesses in the scouting department during the recruitment process; if we are not identifying realistic and affordable targets then what is the purpose of our, albeit limited in size, scouting team.
If the answer is that there is not enough money available to fund all six signings, then questions must be asked why we spent over half our budget on one player when we knew the size of the rebuilding task ahead.
And finally, if the answer is that we simply did not implement a process of succession planning to prepare for such a mass exodus then it indicates gross negligence amongst the backroom structure at the club.

Secondly, qualification to the Europa League was not our target this summer, and whilst in reality the competition perhaps better reflects the quality of our squad at present, it only became our goal having failed for the second year in a row to defeat a lower-ranked side in the third round of the Champions League qualifiers. The reasons for which are, partly, outlined above.

I do not plan on repeating myself every week concerning the neglect that the board have placed upon our playing squad once again this summer, and ideally this piece would have waited until after our trip to Ibrox, however with just a few days remaining of the transfer window the required further strengthening must happen now; albeit too late for this year’s Champions League hopes.

The widespread anger demonstrated towards the board two weeks ago should not simply dissipate because of our qualification to Europe’s consolation prize.

Every Celtic fan wants to support our team and help drive them forward, but that doesn’t require us to rewrite the recent history of mismanagement behind the scenes.

I will support the management and the players and hope that Neil Lennon proves my previously aired doubts wrong, but negligence in the boardroom has cost us once more, and I don’t plan on waiting until this time next year to continue that conversation.

The skies may have cleared for the moment but that doesn’t mean that the storm has passed.

Dark clouds over paradise, yet no sign of thunder

After the events of the last week, tomorrow night’s game against AIK takes on an added significance. Whilst nobody was hoping for Europa league football as little as one week ago, we now find ourselves in a situation whereby qualification to European football’s consolation prize has become the minimum requirement.

The defeat to CFR Cluj last Tuesday was shambolic, the performance that followed on Saturday against Dunfermline was as abject as I have ever seen at this stage of a season. It was brutal to watch and the atmosphere in the stadium felt on the edge of turning poisonous at any moment.

With the Green Brigade demonstrating a protest towards the board, the eerie silence permeating throughout the stadium was reflected by the performance of the players on the park. From the 1st to 120th minute the team looked void of ideas, identity and inspiration.

Whilst we all hope such a performance was caused by the clichéd European hangover, the feeling inside the ground was that the hierarchy had already lost the fans, and increasingly too the players.

Following last week’s defeat to CFR Cluj, Celtic needed an assured response in order to prevent the atmosphere from festering. To call Saturday’s display even a whimper would be highly complimentary when compared with the reality.

After a very positive first two results in the league and comfortable progression through the early rounds of Champions League qualification it is quite astonishing, yet telling, how quickly the mood around the entire club has turned.

Last Tuesday’s shambles was, as I discovered the following day thanks to the fantastic @Moravcik67_ on Twitter, only the third time in our history that we have conceded four goals at home in European football. The first, that infamous night in 1989 as Jacki Dziekanowski’s four goal haul failed to steer Celtic past FK Partizan. The second, the 5-0 thumping off Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. With CFR Cluj, for now, completing the list.

Whilst all of these results were, and will forever be remembered as, unacceptable, the opponents on the initial two occasions at least had significantly more European pedigree at the time than last week’s opposition.

Losing 4-3 at home to CFR Cluj in a game of such magnitude is simply unforgivable. If other supporters disagrees then that is entirely their own prerogative, everybody is entitled to their opinion, what I find intolerable though is the accusation of entitlement aimed upon those supporters who see last Tuesday’s defeat as a damning result of widespread negligence from the people running the club, particularly over the last year.

Losing at home to a side with a significantly lower UEFA coefficient ranking, with significantly lower financial resources, with significantly less European experience over recent seasons does not meet the minimum requirements for a club of Celtic’s size, stature and ambition (at least not that of the fans). Such a defeat indicates failure in the boardroom, failure from the management team, or failure from the men on the park. In our case you can point to all three. Think of it like a treble, only this time one we won’t be selling any merchandise of in the superstore.

Ironically it was the day of our most recent domestic whitewash that it became evident that the board at Celtic Park were once again failing to live up to the expectations of the Celtic fan base. Completing the treble treble on the anniversary of our most famous day should have been a moment of wild celebrations, and to a large extent it was. However, many, myself included, were left feeling deflated just a few moments after the final whistle with the announcement on the park that Neil Lennon had been offered the job as the next permanent Celtic manager amidst the cup final celebrations. It was as bizarre as it was disappointing.

That disappointment felt was not simply due to a belief that we could, and should, have been casting a wider net in our search to bring in the best possible manager. Mostly, it was because of the amateur way the appointment of the most important figure at the club was handled. With Lennon effectively appointed in the showers of Hampden Park, Peter Lawwell, by his own admission, acknowledged that he hadn’t considered any other candidates. That the many applications he’d received hadn’t even been looked at, simply filed away never to be seen again. That alone is gross negligence, and indicative of the way our club is being run.

At the time, I decided against writing about the treble treble success, not wanting an overwhelmingly celebratory piece on such a magnificent achievement to be tinged with negativity at the way Celtic were conducting their business.

The line that emanates from the boardroom at Celtic Park of having the desire to be “a Champions League club in everything we do” is laughable in a variety of ways, but professionalism and strategic planning must now surely sit atop the pile of most ridiculous claims.

The shock felt when our previous manager departed earlier this year risked destabilising our season, but fortunately we stuttered over the finish line in the league with a serious of turgid performances. The widespread belief was that this was down to Neil Lennon not wanting to implement too many new ideas onto the players at such a crucial stage of the season, whilst struggling to pick up the baton in regards to the way Rodgers had worked tactically.

The cry amongst many supporters was that to ensure future continuity could be developed Celtic required structural changes to implement certain foundations into the DNA of the club, and help minimise such chaos should future managers depart so abruptly.

The response from the Celtic board? To appoint Nicky Hammond, a former Director of Football/Technical Director at Reading and West Bromwich Albion, in an unnamed position on a summer trial period, and to do so one month after the appointment of our manager.

Whilst Hammond’s exact role at the club remains unknown, his key duty appears to be concerning recruitment, the area which the board have perhaps let the club and the supporters down the most in recent months, as ever.

This summer’s transfer activity has come as no surprise to any Celtic fan, we have seen the same pattern emerge and repeat itself over the years; bringing in one or two players early on in the transfer window, spending what for us is a fair sum of money giving many fans a false dawn, before then “failing to get deals over the line”, and going into the new season and our most important games (the Champions League qualifiers) with a squad still in need of serious investment.

The biggest transfer saga this year was, of course, the departure of Kieran Tierney. Whilst I think every supporter clung onto a shred of hope that Tierney would turn down the move to Arsenal, the reality was that it had been clear since the story began that Tierney would be away. His recent change of agents, his disappearance from social media and the public eye, and the fact that Arsenal continued coming back in with fresh bids whilst “remaining confident” they would conclude the deal all pointed to the sign that this move was one that Tierney wanted.

In terms of the move I can’t deny being disappointed in the player. I hope he goes on to be a further success, but for a young man giving off all the soundbites which Tierney has done over the past four years it leaves a slightly bitter taste that he felt such a strong need to move on at this early stage of his career, and at this stage of our own aspirations.

As well as losing a fantastic footballer it is the departure of another figurehead who understood the club that will be felt the most, someone that connected the supporters and the players and who we all hoped would help steady the ship and drive us forward during times of upheaval such as throughout the last six months. Tierney, however, took the decision that the offer to leave now was more appealing than the opportunity available at Celtic. He moved on, and so do we.

Regarding the sale itself I believe the club slightly undervalued Tierney when you consider the sums that players of a similar age and with less experience have moved for in the English Premier League, however I am pleased that once the board decided on their figure of £25m they refused to budge from it during negotiations.

Whilst Arsenal appeared willing to meet the asking price fairly early on in the window it was the financial structuring of the deal which caused it to drag on for so long. On one hand it can be argued that the board did the right thing by insisting the full £25m be paid upfront; on the other, considering our knowledge of the way Celtic operate, would it not have been more beneficial to have the rumoured initial £17-19m ready to spend in late July, allowing for further strengthening of the squad before the more challenging rounds of Champions League qualification (whilst simultaneously knowing that a further £6-8m would later arrive in instalments), than to wait until the 8th August to receive the full fee in one payment, but with no time to improve the squad before the qualifiers?

Of course in an ideal world, Celtic would have spent both significantly and early in the transfer window, and still have held out for the full £25m upfront, but we know that’s not how our board work. Only can money go out, once money has come in.

The club’s statement that followed Tierney’s departure, that “we did all we could to keep Kieran … [and that] the club did not need or wish to sell Kieran” does not reflect the reality of the way Celtic operate. If we did not need to sell Tierney for financial reasons then why is that money not being used, in full, to significantly strengthen the squad further?

Every year we find ourselves asking the same question: why do we not speculate to accumulate? Why do we not bring in the required quality to give us the best chance of qualifying for the Champions League and therefore landing the windfall that comes alongside it?

It is argued that you cannot simply spend to guarantee success, as has appeared evident so far by the early season performances of Boli Bolingoli and Christopher Jullien (though I am by no means writing either player off at such an early stage of their Celtic careers). However, if we are not only not spending sufficiently, but also not spending successfully, then it simply indicates further structural weaknesses within the club – If Stephen McGowan’s information is correct then Celtic Football Club currently employ one scout to review the whole of Europe – as opposed to a failed ideology across football; it cannot be denied that in a sport dictated by such capitalistic governance the team’s who spend the most tend to be the most successful.

The recent fallout, following the defeat to CFR Cluj, regarding the lack of signings and way the club is being run is by no means a sudden phenomenon, from the ecstatic moment of the double treble bus parade along The Celtic Way last May things seemed to begin to unravel behind the scenes, culminating in Rodgers departure. The circumstances of which directed all the anger that had been bubbling towards the board upon the man who scuttled out in the middle of the night, and rightly so. However, now is the time that those responsible for our downwards trajectory over the past twelve months were held accountable.

The management and players, though, cannot escape their share of the blame for our premature Champions League exit. Individual errors may have cost us on the night in terms of the goals we conceded, but the tactical preparation, or lack thereof, was disgraceful. The warning signs had come just a few days earlier at Fir Park where in the opening twenty minutes in particular Motherwell had completely outplayed Celtic. The Celtic players looked completely lost of ideas, particularly when pressed high up the pitch (where have we seen that before?). On that day our talented attacking players got us out of jail and led us to a comfortable victory, and for a moment against CFR Cluj it looked like they might repeat the feat. However, had they done so it would simply have masked the reality of the mess we find ourselves in at this moment in time.

Before the appointment of Neil Lennon as manager on a permanent basis I was critical of the idea. I didn’t believe Lennon to be the best candidate, and whilst I have frequently discussed my abhorrence towards his predecessor, I longed for a replacement who could build upon the foundations he had laid down. I felt that continuity and stability in our style and application would be fundamental to our progression. Instead we have ripped up the book and started again.

Neil Lennon’s desire to move the ball forward quickly is appealing, and when it works, for instance at home to lower table sides such as St. Johnstone, it is a pleasure to watch. But against more capable and streetwise opposition moving the ball as quickly as possible to your creative talent simply won’t suffice. There needs to be a more thorough gameplan to ensure an element of control of proceedings, of which Celtic never looked like having against CFR Cluj. During the first half last Tuesday Celtic were completely passive in their play. After the break Celtic burst into life in an end-to-end, frenetic half of football without a moment’s respite. Whilst the energy and application was there in an attacking sense there didn’t seem to be an ounce of game management, and therefore control, on display.

My biggest fear regarding the appointment of Neil Lennon as permanent manager was concerning the detail of the way he operates. His desire to introduce a more heavy metal approach as opposed to the astute possession based style evident throughout the previous three years is not necessarily something I condemn. But if you dismiss any importance towards control of the ball and neglect analytics of the opposition, the attention to detail of how and where they move the ball and close down space, and instead simply rely on talent to overcome your opponents then you don’t stand a chance of long term success in the modern game.

I may be doing a disservice to Neil Lennon’s capabilities, but Ryan Christie’s post-match comments that the manager didn’t change anything tactically at half time are as baffling as they are worrying. Starting our best and most composed midfielder at left back was bad enough, but to not have a calculated gameplan including tactical developments prepared for each possible in-game scenario is as negligent as the people upstairs.

There is still enough time in the transfer window for the season to be fixed before it flies completely off the rails, however judging from previous experiences I have no confidence whatsoever that the required additions to the playing squad will be made before the window closes, and with AIK, Hearts and Rangers to face in the coming weeks, this could be a particularly telling period for the future of our club.

The management team need to get these ones right or they are at risk of holding the record of having the shortest reign ever in the history of Celtic. If they were to be sacrificed the buck should not stop there, those in the boardroom who have neglected their duties and due diligence should be forced out the door.

Nobody may have wanted Europa League football just over a week ago, but if we fail to overcome AIK and fall to defeat at Ibrox at the beginning of next month things will turn even nastier even faster.

There are dark clouds circling over paradise at the moment, yet so far, no sign of thunder.

Removing the emotion and looking to the future

Yesterday was awful. A flat performance and an opportunity to open up a 10 point gap at the top of the league blown. Celtic were subdued creatively, and quite frankly never looked like getting the winner against Aberdeen.

After the shock upheaval in the dark of the night almost two weeks ago, it seemed like sheer desire and adrenaline drove us on through two incredibly tricky fixtures in Edinburgh, giving the entire club a much needed boost after what must have been a distressing 48 hours for the players and staff.

Following those victories over Hearts & Hibs there have been many calls, both within the media and amongst elements of the support, to give Neil Lennon the job beyond the summer. After all, actions speak louder than words and Lenny has shown time and again that he truly cares about the club in a way that only a genuine supporter understands. His passion for Celtic is unquestionable.

Yesterday’s match, however, has perhaps induced a sense of clarity upon some supporters concerning the club’s requirements for the future. And a backlash against Neil Lennon has followed.

The performance reflected the turgid displays often on show during Lennon’s final season in charge first time around, and whilst there have been no drastic changes to personnel and shape over the previous three games, a couple of the manager’s decisions yesterday were questionable; namely the introduction of the slight-of-frame Johnston at half time when it appeared the physicality and organisation of Aberdeen’s defence was proving our greatest hurdle. Hindsight, as always, is a wonderful thing though, and it was refreshing to see Lennon being proactive at the interval following such a pedestrian first forty-five.

The key decision over the direction of our club though must not be made off the back of any individual result, it must be an informed, thought-out, and thorough one. Cries for an immediate appointment to be made should be ignored. For the remainder of the 2018/19 campaign we have our man for the job. The board should be congratulated (there’s a first for everything on here) for acting so swiftly in this regard, ensuring some stability at a time of potential turmoil. However, the appointment of our next permanent manager must not be a reactionary decision. Just as Neil Lennon is no less suitable to becoming the next permanent Celtic manager today than he was yesterday morning, he did not become any more suitable following those two victories in the capital.

Whilst many consider these next few months as an audition for Lennon similarly to back in 2010, the powers that be must look beyond a potential treble treble as the determining factor over who gets the role.

To coin a phrase from the king of the hollow motto Celtic must ‘remove the emotion’ from their next selection process.

In 2010, Neil Lennon took over a club in crisis and, just as he promised, brought the thunder back to paradise. Today’s circumstances are in stark contrast. Although the abruptness of Rodgers et al.’s departures had the potential to derail our season, we have been a club progressing on an upward trajectory over the past two and a half years.

In spite of all his now-evident human flaws, predominately it transpiring that he is in actual fact a rat, Brendan Rodgers is a fantastic football coach and was an incredible manager for Celtic.

It was not just the clean sweep of domestic honours that deserved acclaim, but most significantly the transformation of the behind-the-scenes culture which allowed for such unprecedented success.

Last week Neil Lennon discussed the evolution he’s observed at Celtic since he left almost five years ago, in terms of the make-up of the club; the support staff, the technology available, the analysis conducted, and the overall organisation and professionalism deployed throughout the club.

Although our previous manager attempted to rip out this entire infrastructure and take every member of our backroom staff with him down to Leicester, as well as leaving our playing squad in a need of serious re-investment this summer, it is clear from Lennon’s comments that the culture instilled by Rodgers is still very much in place at Lennoxtown.

These are the foundations we must look to build upon if we have serious ambitions of improving not just domestically but also in European football.

Ten in a row may be the holy grail for every supporter but to truly develop as a club we cannot rip up the manual and start from scratch every time a manager follows their dream to the Midlands. Continuity and stability in our style and application are fundamental going forward.

Last week Ajax inspired every supporter of a big club outside the commercial leagues to dream big again in European football, with their victory over Real Madrid providing a rare reminder that money does not always guarantee success. But such victory does not happen by chance. Ajax have a clearly defined structure which allows for fluidity in their style of play regardless of any change at management level. This continuity does not necessarily translate to certain on-field triumph, with Ajax having failed to win the Eredivisie since 2014, however it has allowed the club to preserve their identity in a way not possible if each new manager attempts to implement their own ethos at a club.

Further examples can be seen throughout European football. The Red Bull Salzburg side who swarmed over and cut through Celtic at pace in Glasgow back in 2014 were no different to the side who did likewise a few months ago despite experiencing four managerial changes since, and having just two players remain from, their initial visit.

Even amongst the upper echelons of the money leagues the desire to instil a lasting working model can be recognised. Borussia Dortmund, for example, have maintained an enduring style of play and business plan throughout the last decade, attempting to replace both players & managers with likeminded successors. While Manchester City, with their (entirely legitimate – nothing to see here) bottomless pit of cash, appointed former Barcelona Directors Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain to their board in 2012 in an attempt to replicate the FCB blueprint, heavily investing in the City academy alongside the first team squad, and ultimately enticing Pep Guardiola to Manchester.

Having listened to the recent discussion on the 90 Minute Cynic regarding the future structure at Celtic, with Christian Wulff championing the implementation of a Director of Football/Technical Director to oversee all footballing matters, it must be noted that all of the aforementioned clubs, as is commonplace on the continent, work under this model. Ajax have had former heroes Edwin van der Sar, now CEO, and Marc Overmars (Technical Director) ensuring the Johan Cruyff mantra is adhered to since 2012; Manchester City have the previously discussed former Barcelona duo at the reins; Gerard Houllier has been the Head of Global Football for the Red Bull Group since 2012; and, Michael Zorc has held the position of Director of Football at Dortmund for an incredible twenty years following his retirement as a player in 1998.

This has allowed each of these clubs to develop their identity and maintain a stable ideology in spite of managerial changes and mass player sales. The difficulty for Celtic adopting this model is less to do with the culture of British football, as is often cited, but more the problematic task of discovering a suitable and capable candidate, particularly alongside our Chief Executive who frequently appears to believe he is befitting of the role.

Whether our next manager is given full-scale background control as Rodgers initially appeared to have, or we see the introduction of a Technical Director at boardroom level to oversee all footballing matters, the most decisive factor in our next appointment must be concerning continuity.

You need only look a few hundred miles south of Celtic Park for examples of clubs who have not considered long-term planning in their hunt for immediate success. At Manchester United, David Moyes was always going to face an impossible task in replacing Alex Ferguson, however his decision to dispose of Ferguson’s entire backroom staff upon his arrival meant the writing was on the wall for him before he had even stepped foot in the door. The appointments of Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho, and their contradictory styles of play, that followed, along with the continual influx of expensive players with no evident plan of how to use them, exhibited that there was no forward thinking concerning the future of Manchester United after Ferguson. Only now, having attempted to replicate their previous model with the return of Ferguson’s disciples Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mike Phelan, do Manchester United seem to be moving forward following their demise over the past six years.

Head a little further south to the capital, and Chelsea represent a club whose short term desire for success has prevented them from maintaining an enduring position at the top of European football. For a club who have won every major honour available to them over the past decade, it is incomprehensible to see them so regularly follow up championship winning campaigns with a disastrous title defence the subsequent year. From Mourinho to Scolari, Ancelotti to Villas-Boas, and Conte to Sarri it is evident that there has been no blueprint to adhere to concerning the ideology of the club.

Whilst it may be hard to argue against Chelsea’s methodology considering their incredible success throughout the Abramovich reign, it is not a route I wish to see Celtic ever go down, nor is it one which could ever realistically be viable without the ludicrous sums on offer across the “big” leagues.

For clubs who cannot dominate the rich-list table off the pitch, developing a lasting infrastructure appears the only way to compete on it. We may have a considerable rebuilding job ahead of us this summer, but if Neil Lennon can guide us to our eighth title in a row we must finally learn from the lessons of the past and look to build from our position of strength.

From a romantic point of view I would love Neil Lennon to lead us forward, bookending a historic 10 in a row, however taking the emotion out of it I do not believe he is the best man for the job. This is not a criticism of Lennon’s capabilities, he has proven at both Celtic and Hibernian that he is a very good football manager; albeit a manager who deploys a contrasting approach to the one who preceded him. This was highlighted with Lennon’s admission that replacing Rodgers is also a learning curve for himself as he adjusts to the new expectations of the role, namely the increased number of meetings required throughout the club.

Perhaps, and in an ideal scenario, Neil Lennon will prove capable of adapting to fit this mould, however an ideology and style of management is not something which can easily be altered overnight and if Celtic have aspirations to transition as seamlessly as possible this summer then they must either look to bring in a manager who works in the same meticulous manner as the man who recently vacated, or be prepared to make significant structural changes to the framework of the club.

The foundations that Rodgers implemented at Celtic Park just about remain, if the board harbour ambitions to emulate the likes of Red Bull Salzburg and AFC Ajax in European football then the business model must go beyond simply signing young players to later sell on for a significant profit. They must look to build upon the past two and a half years and develop a lasting identity and culture ingrained into the fabrics of the club. Only in this way will we see longevity in our progress.

Now is not the time to tear up the manual, however, it is the time to earn your bonus Mr Lawwell.