WITH just fours wins from nine appearances at Hampden Park as manager of Celtic, it is understandable if Neil Lennon feels some unease prior to the latest visit.
Defeat by Dundee United at the national stadium tomorrow could turn what has been a fairly satisfying season so far into a disappointing one, in the space of just one afternoon.
Celtic’s opponents could tell them a thing or two about a Hampden hoodoo. United lost six successive Scottish Cup finals under Jim McLean between 1974 and 1991. Against Celtic even now, they have some demons to exorcise. They have lost on the last nine occasions they have been paired with the Parkhead side in this competition.
It is intriguing how such hexes can take hold, although Lennon might not share the fascination. He has, however, sought to investigate the reason for his side’s continued problems at Hampden, with the most recent reversal, against St Mirren in the League Cup semi-final, regarded by the manager as the worst of the disappointments. This series stretches back to the infamous loss to Ross County at the same stage of the Scottish Cup in the early weeks of Lennon’s reign, and which he feared might end his hopes of taking over on a permanent basis.
“It’s a source of frustration more than anything else,” the manager said yesterday. “At the end of the day it’s a neutral venue. We don’t have a divine right to win the games there.”
Celtic can at least turn to someone who has won at Hampden in recent weeks. Joe Ledley was a member of the Wales team which appeared to have little trouble dispensing with Scotland in their own backyard last month. The midfielder revealed that some workshops had been held this week, as the players and manager sought to nix the idea that Celtic have become spooked by the idea of playing at Hampden. He believes it’s simply a question of not playing well enough, while Lennon is more concerned that it could be a mental issue, since performances, St Mirren and Ross County apart, have not been completely abject.
“We’ve been looking at different points,” revealed Ledley. “But I think it’s just the way we have been playing.” He reflected that Celtic have been guilty of sitting too deeply on recent visits. “We’ve had meetings this week and been looking at things and we want to turn it around as players. The second you cross that line it’s up to us.”
Ledley did point to the surroundings being partially responsible. “You’d rather the fans were on top of you but you can’t change that,” he said. “You just need to deal with it.
“I think it’s a big difference at Hampden,” he added. “You don’t realise how far away the fans are until you are out there, especially behind the goals.”
Lennon also admitted that some serious analysis had gone on this week at Lennoxtown. The Hampden dossier was brought out again as Lennon focused on the last three games his team have played there – against St Mirren this season, and Hearts and Kilmarnock in the previous campaign. The outcome in all three knock-out games was a shock defeat inside 90 minutes.
Although he bristled slightly at the suggestion of a hoodoo, Lennon admitted he had some concerns that the problems could be associated with a mental issue.
“I’m wary of that,” he said. “It’s certainly not a physical thing. So it must be something in our mental approach.”
It’s not as if Celtic have been off-form going into recent Hampden appointments. “I remember we won the league 6-0 at Kilmarnock and then lost the cup semi-final to Hearts, although we played OK,” pointed out Lennon. “Against St Mirren – that was the poorest we’ve played in the last three defeats at Hampden – we had won the previous game 4-0 against Dundee United.”
Once again, Celtic have built up some momentum, easily overcoming Hibernian 3-0 on their last outing. Another defeat at Hampden cannot be borne. “The cup will have a big bearing on how we look back on the season,” admitted Ledley.
“We’d dearly love to win the double, but we know how difficult that is,” added Lennon. “And we need to correct our form going into this environment.
“We’ve analysed it with the players this week and I think they are pretty determined to eradicate the previous performances and results,” the manager continued. “It’s all on the day. It’s a semi-final, they are always intensive affairs. But if we play to our form, we’ll win.
“They just seem to lose their way a bit in the dimensions of the pitch,” he said. “We look stretched quite a bit at times. Again, that is something we’ve looked to correct this week in training.
“The dimensions of Celtic Park are very similar to Hampden. Maybe it’s the atmosphere and the crowd behind the goal being so far away. But we’ve been there so many times now and I just want us to play to our form and for the players to do themselves justice. If we do that then we won’t be far away at all. I also have to say we haven’t had much luck there.”
Lennon doesn’t place too much store in talk of hoodoos. And in any case, as United proved when they finally lifted the Scottish Cup in 1994, they have to end sometime. “You guys call them hoodoos,” said Lennon. “Everyone used to say that Alex McLeish had the Indian sign over Martin [O’Neill]. He drew two and lost two of their first Old Firm meetings. But then I think he won the next seven. So I’m looking for that type of run from us now.”
Celtic’s chances have not been improved by James Forrest’s continued absence. Lennon rated him as a “major doubt” yesterday. The in-form Kris Commons is also unlikely to start after being taken off against Hibs last weekend, when the ankle knock sustained against St Mirren six days previously flared up again.
Hoops’ Hampden horrors
CELTIC have lost more games than they’ve won at Hampden under Neil Lennon. Their League Cup semi-final loss to St Mirren was their third in a row at the famous old ground and Lennon has managed just four wins out of nine since taking charge.
Here is his record.
Apr 2010, Scottish Cup semi-final Celtic 0 Ross County 2
Steven Craig and Martin Scott create one of the biggest ever Scottish Cup shocks.
Jan 2011, League Cup semi-final Celtic 4 Aberdeen 1
Four goals in the opening 33 minutes by Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew, Thomas Rogne and Anthony Stokes sink the Dons.
Mar 2011, League Cup final Celtic 1 Rangers 2 (aet).
Nikica Jelavic grabs an extra-time winner to win the League Cup for Rangers.
Apr 2011, Scottish Cup semi-final Celtic 4 Aberdeen 0.
Mulgrew, Ledley, Commons and Shaun Maloney net the goals.
May 2011, Scottish Cup final Celtic 3 Motherwell 0.
Ki Sung-Yeung and Mulgrew score either side of a Stephen Craigan own goal.
Jan 2012, League Cup semi-final Celtic 3 Falkirk 1
An Anthony Stokes double and Scott Brown goal see off First Division Falkirk.
Mar 2012, League Cup final Celtic 0 Kilmarnock 1
Dieter van Tornhout’s late winner stuns Celtic.
Apr 2012, Scottish Cup semi-final Celtic 1 Hearts 2
Craig Beattie’s injury-time penalty sends Hearts into the final.
Jan 2013, League Cup semi-final Celtic 2 St Mirren 3
Saints shock Celtic as Mulgrew misses a penalty before netting a late consolation.