Right, the Neil Lennon era is finally over. The lame duck of the last several months has quacked its last. It would seem a bit cruel for someone to recount how it came to this, to rub salt into the wound...
Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened. 'It' being:— Narey's Toepoker (@Nareystoepoker) February 24, 2021
- blowing 10 in a row
- losing to St. Mirren and Ross County in the league
- losing to Ross County in the League Cup
- needing extra time and pens to beat Championship side Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final (1/9)
So now the question is: where do Celtic go from here?
They are a distant second to Rangers, eighteen points adrift. They have no manager, no Director of Football and the new Chief Executive does not start until the summer. They have several key players likely to leave at the end of the season, and so much deadwood in the squad that you could build an ark out of it (the mediocre left-backs went in two-by-two, hurrah, hurrah...). Whilst they will be in the Champions League qualifiers, the path to the group stage potentially includes matches against French, Portuguese or Russian opponents. And don't forget Covid and its effect on finances; the club lost £6m between June and December alone.
But as Einstein once said, "in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity". Can Celtic turn this into a moment where they reinvent themselves and drag themselves back towards not only the domestic title but also European success? Basically, is this going to be a John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish disaster, or a Martin O'Neill miracle?
Here's what needs to be done. It's a hell of a job. In short (much to the chagrin of the supporters), they need to copy what their greatest rivals have done in the last year or two...
THE NEW MANAGER
I prepare to be proved wrong - I never expected Brendan Rodgers to come to Scotland - but it could be very difficult for the club to attract a name with high pedigree. One issue is that Brexit means that managers from outside the UK will need work permits, which could prove quite tricky and prevent the club snaring the 21st century equivalent of Wim Jansen. Of foreign coaches mentioned in dispatches, Rafa Benitez is surely unrealistic, whilst Roberto Martinez's exploits with Belgium would surely leave him fancying he could do better. Eddie Howe makes more sense but there may be jobs closer to home (Crystal Palace? Newcastle?) that could come up in the near future. In contrast, Steve Clarke may see this as a step up but he surely wouldn't leave Scotland until they were knocked out of the Euros and would therefore only have a few weeks in the job before the new season.
In short, this search could be long and laborious. One hopes that the club, already having realized Lennon was a busted flush, have already started it.
It's plain for all to see that standards have dropped dramatically since Lennon replaced Brendan Rodgers. There have been unkind (and probably accurate) suggestions that signing policy was being run as much by Peter Lawwell as by the coaching staff. Regardless, Celtic do not have a philosophy in place for how the first team is going to play and how to build the squad around that. Lennon did insist last summer on moving to a 3-5-2 and recruiting with a view to that, but those tactics made little sense given the players he had available - shoehorning James Forrest into a wing-back role and leaving little room for Mo Elyounoussi, Tom Rogic and Ryan Christie - and the quality of opposition; three centre-backs and a defensive midfielder against Hamilton Accies?
Meanwhile the youth academy continues to offer only crumbs. Mikey Johnston is perenially injured, while the jury is out on whether Stephen Welsh can be the next Stephen McManus or the next Stephen Crainey. Kids who were hyped up a few years ago such as Karamoko Dembele, Armstrong Oko-flex and Cameron Harper are set to leave having failed to make the grade, with poor development and a lack of a realistic pathway to the first team among the reasons for this.
Celtic seem to have been in the market for a Director Of Football for sometime now, and finding one who will mesh well with the new manager/head coach is critical. Perhaps the best strategy would be to appoint the DoF first? Bouncing around from one strategy to another is not an efficient or cost-effective strategy in modern football and doing so (Lennon to Deila to Rodgers to Lennon) is one of the reasons they have ended up in this mess. Celtic can aspire to get back in the Champions League in the next year or two, but the process of turning them into a club that can get there on a regular basis again will take much, much longer.
It's probably best to look at this by position group, but damn it's going to be a big job for the new boss to sort this out.
This mainly depends on whether Vasilis Barkas is salvageable. It's safe to say that for £4.5m Celtic expected a rather safer pair of hands. Scott Bain is an acceptable backup but nothing more, whilst Conor Hazard went from cup final starter to persona non grata in the space of a few weeks; it's not even clear whether he has signed a new contract or not. Barkas wouldn't be the first goalie who has a difficult first season and makes a huge leap in his second, but if not then Celtic will be back in the goalie market again.
Kristoffer Ajer will probably leave as he only has one year left on his contract; his stagnation under Lennon may well cost the club several million pounds. Shane Duffy and Diego Laxalt have been loan duds; Jonjoe Kenny is a far better player but convincing the right-back to make his move from Everton permanent may not be easy. Anthony Ralston is under contract for another year but clearly has no future here. And neither do Boli Bolingoli, Jack Hendry or Lee O'Connor, who are all out on loan currently.
So that leaves Christopher Jullien, Greg Taylor and Stephen Welsh. And Jullien may not even be fit for the start of next season. Eek. I suppose you could also count Nir Bitton as a defender, though as far as I can see Lennon was the only person who did.
Scott Brown will be thirty-six in June and it's clearly time to put him out to pasture/melt him down for glue (delete as applicable depending on how you feel about him). Tom Rogic is likely to take up an offer from an Asian club, and it's hard to see Mo Elyounoussi returning for a third season on loan or Olivier Ntcham coming back from his temporary move to Marseille. The good news is that Ismaila Soro, Callum McGregor and David Turnbull can probably provide a pretty balanced central midfield, but there's a real need for depth here. Scott Robertson is that rarest of things - an Academy product who the club have high hopes for. A new manager might light a fire under youngster Ewan Henderson too?
I think its safe to assume Odsonne Edouard will be offski with only a year to go on his current deal, and the smart money is on Ryan Christie looking for a new challenge as well. Celtic will not be short of numbers up front, but they might be short on quality. There's Albian Ajeti, who has scored a few goals but who really should have made more of an impact given his £5m transfer fee; Patryk Klimala, a £3.5m dud; the erratic Leigh Griffiths; and the forgotten Vakoun Bayo. Out wide there's another failure in Marian Shved (whose arrival actually predates Lennon), plus Mikey 'Mr Glass' Johnston and James Forrest, who is close to a return from a long injury layoff.
There will presumably be cash to spend, especially if there are outgoings; Edouard in particular should fetch a huge fee. But whoever takes this job has a heck of a job on their hands. And unlike Brendan Rodgers a few years ago, he has a proper opponent on the other side of Glasgow who could make life very, very difficult for them.
Celtic simply cannot afford to get this wrong.
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.