ON the only previous occasion that Inverness Caledonian Thistle triumphed at Parkhead, it spelled the end of an ill-starred managerial tenure when the famous Scottish Cup shock win in 2000 by the then First Division Highland club prompted the departure of John Barnes from the Celtic hotseat.
But, despite Neil Lennon’s emotive threat to resign in the immediate aftermath of his team’s latest SPL slip-up on Saturday, there will be no such recriminations or consequences this time around. Lennon’s startling declaration that he would “do the honourable thing” and quit if the Celtic supporters made it clear they were unhappy with his work came in response to a verbal altercation he had with a couple of them behind his technical area as the Scottish champions toiled in vain against an obdurate Inverness side. Just 17 days after he had guided Celtic to one of the finest results in their history with a 2-1 Champions League home win over Barcelona, it was a reminder to Lennon of the endlessly fickle nature of many football fans.
His comments, which he unhesitatingly reiterated when asked for clarification of them in a slack-jawed media room, were an indication of his frustration on a day when Celtic made it 10 points dropped from seven home SPL fixtures this season. But the reality is that Lennon has no intention of walking away from a job he has steadily grown into over the past year, nor is there the remotest prospect of him being asked to do so by the club’s board.
For Celtic’s currently unconvincing league form, while delivering plenty of drama, is not even close to being regarded as a crisis. Despite having their lowest points tally after 14 matches for 15 years, Celtic remain a point clear at the top of the SPL with a game in hand.
In the absence of the traditional challenge for domestic supremacy provided by Rangers, Lennon and his team have the luxury of being able to afford their current level of point-dropping. The Champions League has unquestionably had an impact on Celtic’s domestic form, most notably at home, and Lennon regards that as unacceptable.
But, as Inverness manager Terry Butcher observed on Saturday, it remains highly probable that Celtic will soon find a consistent vein of winning SPL form which will stretch them clear of the pack after the turn of the year.
Celtic defender Efe Ambrose echoed that view and also expressed his dismay at the criticism dished out to Lennon. The Nigerian international has pledged that the defeat to Inverness will prove to be a line in the sand as far as Celtic’s home performances are concerned. “The supporters want us to win every game but, when we cannot win, we see the other side of them,” said Ambrose. “The ugly side, but this is football. I believe that, with patience, everything will work out better than they think.
“From now on, we will make sure this never happens again at Celtic Park. It’s not been good here, as we have been losing and drawing games in the SPL. Our away record is better and we will be working hard to balance that. From now on, we will be winning games at home.”
As in several of their previous post-Champions League domestic matches this season, there was a flatness about Celtic’s performance on Saturday. A sluggish start allowed Inverness to settle into proceedings, Butcher’s men, in a well-ordered yet flexible 4-5-1 formation, defended robustly and always carried a threat on the counter attack. It was not until six minutes before half-time that Celtic carved out their first clear-cut opening, Kris Commons blazing wastefully wide from 10 yards.
When Mikael Lustig was similarly profligate from close range a minute later, there was a growing sense that this could prove to be an unfulfilling day for the home team. Inverness made the breakthrough in the 64th minute, the lively and inventive Aaron Doran finding Philip Roberts on the right of the Celtic penalty area.
The on-loan Arsenal player turned smartly to wrongfoot both Charlie Mulgrew and Adam Matthews, allowing him to feed a low pass into the feet of Billy McKay for a close range tap-in.
Although Inverness rode their luck at times, most notably when central defender Gary Warren diverted a Lustig cross against his own post, they generally resisted Celtic’s increasingly frantic efforts for an equaliser with admirable composure and tactical discipline.
Butcher’s men should have doubled their lead in the 84th minute, McKay striking the crossbar and then Doran seeing his effort from the rebound blocked on the line by Ambrose. In a season when they have conceded numerous stoppage-time goals, Inverness may have feared it would prove a costly miss but they held out for an historic first-ever league win at Celtic Park.
Coming on the back of their League Cup quarter-final defeat of Rangers at Ibrox in October, it continues what is promising to be the most satisfying season of Butcher’s managerial career. “We’ve created history for the club and that’s what we intend to keep doing,” said Butcher.
“We’ve got a League Cup semi-final to look forward to as well. Winning the First Division with Inverness was great, but to do what we have done already this season has been absolutely brilliant. It’s a mindblowing feat for these boys, many of whom we have plucked from obscurity to come to the club, to do what they have done.”