THE moment Celtic’s Champions League campaign came to an end last Wednesday, it was as if the season was over for Neil Lennon’s side.
Discussion turned to the number of players expected to leave, whether their manager will follow, and the point in July when they will have to start negotiating Champions League qualifiers.
There is little under three months of the domestic campaign remaining.
Celtic haven’t snared a single piece of silverware, yet it seems the club’s players are treating the assignments still to be undertaken as not worth extending themselves over.
In no small part, that was what lay behind Neil Lennon’s latest public mauling of his men in the wake of an excruciating defeat that, of course, will merely delay their coronation as Scottish Premier League champions. Even as Celtic’s sixth such reverse, and one rendered eminently possible because of the fortitude possessed by opponents Ross County, a lengthy injury list and post-Juventus fatigue, it still probably ranks as their most mortifying. They had bounded into a 2-0 lead within 21 minutes and had only lost games from that vantage point twice in the past 13 years. The fact a third such blot ensued provoked a classic in the lengthening list of Lennon lashings for his team.
“Some of them look as if their minds are away elsewhere, maybe at other clubs,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve been tapped up and don’t know where they are mentally, but you can tell by their body language that they’re not with us at the minute. So I’ll have to sort that out. These players owe me. We’ve pulled them out of places no-one had heard of and put them in the shop window. I want payback now. If they want to go, they just have to knock on my door and say ‘look, I want to go’, I’ll leave them out and play someone else who wants to be here.”
Offered in a calculated fashion, these slaughterings are an increasingly common tactic used by Lennon to motivate players who aren’t being stirred into giving their best by natural professionalism. A number may indeed now have their minds on moves.
Fraser Forster, having on the Friday spoken of his desire to test himself “week in week out” in the English Premier League, didn’t rise to any tests in Dingwall. Hesitant as Steffen Wohlfarth darted through the middle to head in a 91st-minute winner and clumsy in dealing with a loose ball at the back post in the moments leading up to Steven Morrow bundling in a 36th-minute equaliser for the home side, he just wasn’t on it. A back three in front of him that, Lennon said, was forced on him by injuries to full-back Adam Matthews, Emilio Izaguirre and Michael Lustig probably didn’t help.
Yet, arriving at any judgements over where Celtic are right now and where their players might want to be is impossible in a league context. They will win the title at a canter. They could, though, land it with the lowest points total by champions for more than a decade. Yet, the squad is the same one that, when they needed to last season, embarked on a 17-game winning run that stands as the second longest in the Scottish top flight across the entire post-war period.
Moreover, if Forster wasn’t on it, than neither was his Ross County counterpart, Michael Fraser who, with the wind hardly helping him, was beaten by a Charlie Mulgrew corner he got a touch on, and then a deftly dinked effort from Gary Hooper. County manager Derek Adams declared that gave Celtic a two-goal advantage they hadn’t worked for and never looked like extending but, with Anthony Stokes dragging a chance wide just before half-time and Hooper having an effort knocked on to the bar, that was disingenuous.
Where the enigmatic Adams was entirely correct was in his assessment that his incredibly resilient Ross County team fully deserved three points.
They started to claw their way towards them when a terrific strike from Grant Munro after half an hour reduced the deficit to 2-1. For the last half hour they were the team making both all the running and all the chances, and their German substitute’s first goal for the club means they have now harvested 28 from a possible 33 in an 11-game run that could yet see them better their current third place. If that seemed inconceivable for the Highland club’s first SPL campaign, Adams gives the impression that anyone of that opinion was a football philistine .
“If you have a wee bit about yourself and know a bit about football, you’d have had a look at our squad and thought we had an opportunity to push on in the league,” said Adams, who side-stepped talk of earning a slot in the Europa League-qualifiers through finishing in the top three. “We want to get into the top six first. Our main aim was to stay in the SPL and we look like we’ve done that – now we just need to finish the season as strongly as possible.”
Celtic, meanwhile, just want the league season to be finished, it would seem.