NEIL Lennon left few targets unaccounted for on Sunday, after Celtic’s dreams of a domestic treble again perished on the Hampden turf.
He certainly wasn’t in the mood to apologise to his players yesterday. They knew they deserved it, he said. And, he added, they will feel the lash of his tongue should they fall below their own high standards again, with tonight’s league fixture against Kilmarnock providing a quick opportunity to earn redemption.
However, re-adjusting his sights, Lennon moved to defend his players from what he views as critics intent on trouble-making. Less than 48 hours after the crushing defeat to St Mirren, into the line of fire walked managers and pundits. Unlike Celtic penalty-takers of late, Lennon isn’t in the mood to miss. Kenny Shiels was first to be given some of the same treatment Lennon meted out to his players in the gloomy aftermath of Sunday’s League Cup semi-final defeat.
It’s his job to criticise, he explained. The players should and do accept his criticism. What they shouldn’t have to put up with is ill-informed comment from elsewhere. With the Kilmarnock manager still in the process of serving a dug-out ban, Lennon won’t have to shake Shiels’ hand in public tonight. However, there will likely be an awkward meeting at some point.
“I think I have a right to be critical,” said Lennon. “I think I am the only one really who has a right to be critical of the team when they perform like that.
Supporters can have their say, but I am not overly enamoured with columnists and yada yada yada having a go at the team.”
It had been brought to his attention that Shiels, when interviewed on radio last week, had said Celtic had “massively underachieved” and were guilty of throwing away cups. This was before Sunday’s League Cup setback, which left Lennon again pondering the mysterious case of Celtic’s poor form at the national stadium. That, though, is his look-out. It isn’t for Shiels to comment, he stressed.
“It has nothing to do with him,” said Lennon, who then made a pointed reference to Kilmarnock’s home defeat by Stenhousemuir earlier in the season.
“They won the League Cup and defended it very poorly, which no-one seems to touch on. They got knocked out in the first round. You can look at it in many ways but I think we have been brilliant.
“I think we probably overachieved in 2012, for the budget we were working with, the environment that we are playing in, the pressure the players are under week-in, week-out.”
Former Celtic midfielder Murdo MacLeod was next, although Lennon did not identify him by name. The manager simply referred to a column in a tabloid newspaper where the writer had made “sycophantic” comments about Celtic fans being short-changed at Hampden. “Blowing one treble is careless, but blowing two is verging on criminal,” began MacLeod. “That’s why I feel sorry for those supporters who turned up at Hampden and forked out hard-earned cash to watch that display.”
Lennon eagerly accepted his right to reply yesterday. “It was as if winning a treble is as easy as shelling peas,” he said. “I am not happy with it.
“He is trying to drive a wedge between the players and the fans with that comment about the hard-earned cash. I think this team has given value for money this season for the supporters. So for people like that to come out and have a pop — and you never see him [MacLeod] here unless Henrik [Larsson] is about the place, this is true — it irks me. I am sure he didn’t spend any money going to the ground and getting to the game.”
Of course, such bickering should not be allowed to obscure what was another below-par performance from Celtic at Hampden. To his credit, Lennon accepts that and he is troubled by the repeated inability to rise to the big occasion at the national stadium, although he, too, did not enjoy playing there.
“Maybe at Hampden there’s a lack of intensity in the stadium – you know, atmosphere, slow pitch, the logistics of the stadium,” he reflected. “But the SFA don’t set up the stadium for us. It’s not there for our approval.
“It’s for everybody and we have to adapt better and play better when we go there. I wouldn’t say it’s alarming but that’s three times we’ve been there and we’ve lost these last three games. It’s hard to explain because we’ve been playing so well.”
“I don’t want to criticise but I just never really enjoyed playing there,” he added. “Maybe it’s because in Scotland you’re used to the crowd being right there. And then, when you go to Hampden, it’s a long, long way away. I don’t really know the history of the stadium but we’ve been there often enough to know what it’s about and we’re not learning from our experiences and it’s a cause for concern.”
Another area of concern for Lennon is the white-washed spot 12 yards from goal. The manager felt that Charlie Mulgrew’s failure to score with a penalty just after the interval on Sunday was a defining point in the match. He joked that goalkeeper Fraser Forster might be next up for a turn, providing he recovers from a neck injury that is. Lukasz Zaluska is in line to deputise again tonight. As for penalties, Mulgrew could be given another chance. So long, Lennon said, as “he puts all sorts on it”, rather than try to pass it into the net.