Now that the dust has settled on last season, former Celtic manager Neil Lennon has been speaking to The Times in his first major interview since he reached the inevitable conclusion in March that his time at Celtic was up.
Lennon has always been a battler on and off the pitch when it comes to defending his own corner and there is clearly some lingering resentment – many will think justified, others not – on the events of last season and the very sad way that his own relationship with the Celtic support seemed to have been broken.
He discusses many things and reaches the same sort of conclusion each time, it was all the fans fault. While there is something in that there’s much more to it and maybe Neil Lennon himself needs more time to put that traumatic season into proper context?
For instance he hits out at the supporters who gathered outside the stadium after the League Cup to Ross County on 29 November. There is no doubt that the events that night had an impact on the players and management team, indeed everyone at Celtic Park inside the stadium that night. Last weekend when Celtic were briefing the Fans Media about Eddie Howe’s decision to decline the job offer, a Celtic official was coincidentally chatting to me about that night as a significant moment in how last season panned out.
After the game the Celtic players had been briefed that a group of angry fans had gathered outside the ground and that they should expect some verbal abuse coming their way. However everyone on the receiving end of what happened were completely shocked by what happened as the players and staff left Celtic Park.
But those disgraceful scenes still do not allow Neil Lennon to get away with blaming it all on the support’s reaction to the first cup defeat in ’35/36 games’. That is an insult to the Celtic support who have experienced plenty of highs and lows in cup competitions and realise that a defeat to the likes of Morton, Raith Rovers, Clyde etc can happen.
The reaction to the Ross County defeat was about much more than the remarkable sequence of cup matches won coming to an end. Just about everything that had happened at the club of the previous few months was a complete and utter shambles, so please spare us the nonsense that it was all down to losing a game to Ross County.
“Speaking to the players the next day (after the League Cup loss) they were really disturbed and upset by that. Literally upset by it.
“That was the first cup defeat in 35/36 games,” Lennon says in his Times Interview. “It was the end of an unbelievable cycle of success and for them to be treated that way was bewildering. They should have been lauded for it rather than abused. They were getting pelted with missiles. It was very sad,” he added.
And Lennon didn’t stop there. He had been subjected to an overwhelming attack lasting most of last season, most of it online particularly through social media. A section of the Celtic support never wanted Neil Lennon as the permanent manager after having their eyes opened by an elite coach like Brendan Rodgers, but it was never Lennon’s fault that Rodgers left and he certainly started last season having justified the decision to appoint him in the showers at Hampden the previous May.
When it all started to go horribly wrong Lennon faced the brunt of the criticism but the problems started in the Boardroom, cracks were appearing in the Dressing Room, caused by the Want Aways and the vocal element in the support who never wanted Lennon appointed in the first place. They piled in from the August Champions League exit and were relentless thereafter until he had to go.
“There was a new breed of supporters that I had nothing in common with and who belie the values of the club. They are the ones that are giving the club a bad name,” the former Celtic captain and manager said. “It was definitely a situation like no other. You’re going for the tenth title in a row and that was an obsession for the fans, an unhealthy obsession I felt. And we were in the midst of a pandemic where nothing was normal.”
“I had nothing in common with those supporters and the way they treated Dermot and Peter as well, shocking. Considering in December we had just finished off another treble, two months later you are out the door.
“The whole thing seemed joyless. There was no credit it for it. It was just ‘yeah Celtic have won another treble, move on’. There was a lack of joy around the place and that was really difficult,” Lennon added.
But the fans getting the blame for the Ten in a Row obsession, and there clearly was one, is remarkable. Celtic were as guilty as the support in building this up, seeing the money spinning implications no doubt.
It wasn’t the Celtic support who cleared out players like Jozo Simunovic, Jonny Hayes and Craig Gordon to make way for replacements as Celtic eyed the Ten.
It wasn’t the Celtic support who convinced a number of players who wanted to leave the club, some claiming that they had promises in place to do so, to stay another season to go for the Ten.
It wasn’t the Celtic support who put together the Ten marketing campaigns last summer, getting 60,000 supporters to pay full price for a season ticket despite little chance of actually getting into a game. Show me a club anywhere in the World who had that number of season tickets last season?
When Celtic won the first Ten supporters were getting somewhat bored of the inevitability of Celtic always winning the league, they started picking and choosing games to attend. So the Premier League set-up was introduced.
No-one really imagined after Celtic’s run ended at nine, that this could happen again but Rangers RC under the dubious stewardship of David Murray (a man who loved a ‘GIRUP Celtic’ moment) sensed an opportunity to surpass Jock Stein’s achievement and they went for it with all that they could borrow. Celtic stopped it on the last day of the season in 1998 bringing to an end a decade in the wilderness when we nearly lost Celtic.
Their demise in 2012 gave Celtic an opportunity to have another attempt at the Ten, but we fell short. Celtic could have done the Ten though but our best chance actually was lost right at the start and the man you’d have to blame for that is…Neil Lennon. Anyone remember that 3-2 defeat up at Inverses that allowed Craig Whyte to win the title in 2011? Had Celtic won that night the Ten would have been won.
“So you put that together and there were a lot of things that were out of your control as a manager,” Lennon continued. “I wouldn’t say I was hurt, I was more bewildered by it and the lack of time and the lack of faith that people showed in me. It’s basically fans I’m referring to more than anything else.
“I can walk away with 21 medals as a player and a manager, the first guy to do the treble as both a player and a manager. If that doesn’t mean a lot to other people, it means a lot to me.”
This is true Neil, and in time you will come to realise that the majority of the support appreciate all that you have done for the club. You felt that you could turn things around last season but from the time of the Sparta Prague fiasco there was no way back and staying in situ denied Celtic the chance to turn the season around and allowed theRangers a Walk Over to their first major honour.
That was not down to the fans, that was down to you and to the people on the Board who could not see the bigger picture, despite the huge salary they take from our football club. No-one is bigger than Celtic, not even Neil Lennon.
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