THE fact that Neil Lennon’s career was shaped entirely by Martin O’Neill meant his mentor’s ruthless sacking by Sunderland eight days ago was always going to be the cause of upset for the Celtic manager.
However, it is the unseemly haste with which O’Neill was replaced by Paolo Di Canio that made it unfathomable. The departure and arrival at the Stadium of Light in recent days cannot be considered in isolation.
“The way it has been handled is strange – and so is the appointment. I do wish Paolo the very best and I hope he’s successful,” Lennon said. “But it gives hope to everyone if you get promoted from League Two to a Premiership job. I thought it was getting harder to get Premiership jobs – until this one.”
It became ever harder to see a happy ending for O’Neill on Wearside in recent months. On a BBC Radio 5 Live interview on Friday, the 61-year-old himself admitted he thought he would have won more matches this season. An eight-game sequence without a victory precipitated his removal following 16 months in charge.
In 23 years of management, he had always previously controlled his own destiny, a power he earned through success at Wycombe Wanderers, Leicester City – a club he guided to two League Cups – and Celtic, where he became only the second manager to guide the club to a treble and take them to a European final, before revitalising Aston Villa’s fortunes. O’Neill, who maintained he deserved more time at Sunderland, said the other day he retained the same “drive and determination” for management as when he joined Wycombe at roughly the age Lennon is now. The current Celtic manager is convinced O’Neill will be sought after, with his name already linked to the vacancy at Leeds United created by Neil Warnock’s removal.
“I was surprised by Martin’s sacking – but nothing should surprise me in football now,” Lennon said. “I was obviously very disappointed for him but no one will be more disappointed than the man himself [though] he’ll take a philosophical view on it. He’s one of the most experienced managers around and I’m not sure he’ll be out of the game too long, there will be plenty of suitors.
“He’ll be hurting for a short period of time and he’ll probably take time out. But I’m hoping he’ll come again. When you see a guy like Martin losing his job, you realise no one is safe, of course you do. It’s the first time in his long managerial career that he’s lost a job.
“He took a lot of pride in that [having not happened]. But the one thing he always said to me was ‘when you’re a manager, there’s one thing guaranteed and that is you’ll get sacked’.”
O’Neill was accused of being too rigid in his playing system and too fixed in managing as he had for too long during his tenure the Stadium of Light. All such accusations he has rejected fiercely, but there was a passivity and insipidness about the teams he sent out latterly that made them un-O’Neill-like.
“I don’t think Martin rested on his laurels,” Lennon said. “He improved Sunderland last season but injuries and a loss of form have hindered him – that can happen to anyone. The timing of it was very strange. It was a two-week international break so I’m sure he’ll have spoken with the owner and tried to plan ahead. Did he realistically expect them to beat Manchester United? There was always a chance they’d lose that game.”
Many have subsequently accused Sunderland of losing the plot in hiring Di Canio, the hothead’s hothead, as his replacement. In his previous post, former Swindon chief executive Nick Watkins likened the propensity for outbursts from the Italian as “management by hand grenade”. The explosiveness did help the club blast their way up to the English third tier.
However, such efforts, and a love of Mussolini’s style of fascism that Di Canio last week retracted amidst a publicity firestorm, did not make him most folk’s idea of a safe pair of hands to steer a club through a seven-game stretch on which their survival in the top tier will rest. Irrespective, though, Di Canio, who himself played for Celtic in 1996-97, was in place within 24 hours of O’Neill clearing his desk.
The panic of losing status just when the massive spondulicks on offer in the new English Premier League television deal are about to kick in is addling minds in boardrooms, Lennon believes.
“There will be a lot of good British managers in the Championship thinking ‘what have I got to do to get a job’?” the Celtic manager says. “I don’t know Paolo at all and I think there’s more to him than this ‘passionate maverick’. There’s more substance to him than that. Obviously Sunderland see something in him that makes them think he can get the best out of the players for the remaining games.
“Finances dictate everything now and chairmen are looking over their shoulder. Brian McDermott and Nigel Adkins had great achievements getting Reading and Southampton promoted. But with 12 games to go, they’re sacked. It’s very harsh, I think. There’s no evidence to suggest either of them wouldn’t have kept their respective clubs up. We’re starting to see it a bit more in Scotland now as well.
“But it’s worse in England – Neil Warnock has left Leeds as well. Everyone wants a quick fix but look at Wigan, who have been on the periphery of relegation for the last four or five seasons. They’ve stuck by Roberto Martinez and they’ve got the rewards for it. [Wigan owner] Dave Whelan doesn’t seem to panic like other clubs do.”