Having attained the Holy Grail, Celtic boss Neil Lennon faces a potential dead parrot, reckons Tom English
WATCHING Celtic of late has been a bit like looking at the loveable lunacy of Monty Python. The club’s progression to the Holy Grail of the last 16 of the Champions League, set against a backdrop of toil in their domestic life, has been as surreal as it has been magical. We’ve already had the Spanish Inquisition against Barcelona as well as Neil Lennon’s transformation from a very naughty boy (in the spat with one of his own fans a few weeks back) to the Messiah. The other day, Kris Commons, his leg horribly swollen, was like something off the Ministry of Silly Walks and, through his continuing defiance of wounds that were supposed to have required an operation, Scott Brown has been the footballing equivalent of the madly defiant Black Knight waving away the impact of a degenerative hip with a Pythonesque flourish. “Tis but a scratch,” as Brown didn’t say the other day.
And now for something completely different.
From the Champions League to the Scottish Cup, from the Nou Camp, the Stadium of Light and the Luzhniki Stadium to Gayfield. There has probably been such a stark contrast in the history of the Champions League, it’s just that we can’t think of one that rivals the scenes of last Wednesday to what this coming midweek is going to look like. “I’ve never played there or even been there, “ said Lennon on Friday, “But Danny McGrain’s told me enough stories about it.”
Lennon was smiling at the time, not out of disrespect for Gayfield but at the bonkers nature of Celtic’s world at the moment. One minute they are the toast of British football, having pulled off what Lennon calls a miracle, and the next minute they are in this parallel universe of Arbroath and a game that, should they fail to win it, would bring all the crazies back down from cloud nine and straight into Lennon’s face as if the Champions League had never happened.
“Listen, it’s the reality of it. Man United can get a League One or League Two team in cup competitions,” said the Celtic manager. “It’s the romance of the cup, if you want to call it that. I want to go to Gayfield and win. I want us to progress in all the competitions and I want us to really start focusing on the domestic games. While the Champions League has been a really nice distraction, it has had an impact on our domestic form. They [the players] have got something to really look forward to in a couple of months time, but that’s then and right now they have to knuckle down and play that type of football domestically as well, particularly at home.
“We want to go strong to Arbroath, we don’t want to leave anything to chance. After the euphoria of Wednesday night, you don’t want to have an embarrassment on your hands.”
Celtic’s double life has been fascinating to watch. The great intensity of their Champions League nights and the desperate vulnerability they’ve shown either side of these big games has been a strange dynamic of their season. It’s not just the team that has looked out of sorts on the home front, but the entire support. They have gone from a fanbase whose noise would bring down the walls of a city on Champions League nights to a fairly mundane crew who could hardly clear their throats for some of the stuff on the domestic front.
“Peter [Lawwell] made this point. We’ve got 40,000-odd season ticket holders and 30,000 turned up for the Inverness game. People can’t afford to go all of the games. There’s a natural downer after the Champions League games, especially when there’s a home game and there’s a lot of empty seats. But, it’s not just exclusive to us. I’ve seen it at Benfica, I’ve seen it in Russia, in Italy. I’ve also seen it in Spain. I know, psychologically, the team has been meaning to do it domestically, but I think they’ve been concentrating on these [European] games.
“However, now that they have qualified, they can put that away and really take what they’ve shown in the Champions League into the domestic games. That’s what I’m hoping they will do. I’m not guaranteeing it. We might still be inconsistent, I don’t know. But we’ve definitely got the qualities to put together a winning run.”
Of course, Rangers’ absence from the SPL has changed the feel of things even more. Lennon hasn’t felt that white-heat intensity this season and there is an argument to be made that it has made him a better, more focused, manager. Having that brutal and wearying rivalry taken out of the equation has left him more breathing space in which to develop as a manager instead of constantly living in a world that can drain the life out of him.
“Yeah it is a two-way thing, though. There is definitely less of an edge [about the SPL] and you can feel that with the punters as well at times, with Rangers not being there. It is just a natural feeling because the competition has been so intense. It is surreal at times. It [the Rangers result in seasons past] would be the first thing you look for, yeah. You have one eye on the result coming in if they’ve played the early match. Then you have that wee bit extra pressure on you if they have won or it galvanises you if they draw or get beat. You do definitely miss that. The reality is they are not here and you have to get on with it.
“It does take up a lot of your time and there is a lot of negativity towards it. That is from a manager’s point of view but from everybody else’s perspective, it’s brilliant – the toing and froing between these two juggernauts. It has been less stressful, put it that way. I am not saying it has been more beneficial. Who knows, if Rangers had been here would we have had this run in the Champions League? I don’t know.”
You suspect he doesn’t care. He has no need for hypotheticals. Not when the real thing looks so good.