Stephen Halliday: Europe has become Celtic’s new barometer
IT WAS Neil Lennon’s mentor, Martin O’Neill, who famously declared on his arrival as Celtic manager back in 2000 that Rangers were the “benchmark” for what he hoped to achieve in the job.
If it was a partly mischievous and psychologically effective comment from O’Neill, who would of course go on to clear that benchmark with some style and rapidity, it was also a clearly defined statement of what he needed to do in order to be acclaimed as a successful Celtic manager.
So where does Lennon, with Rangers now removed from his immediate field of vision for the next few years, find his point of reference as he seeks to emulate his fellow Northern Irishman as one of Celtic’s most productive managers?
For if there is a significantly negative aspect to the demise of Celtic’s great rivals from Lennon’s perspective, it is in the fact winning the Scottish Premier League title will now be widely regarded in diminished terms.
His team’s laboured start to their defence of the crown on Saturday, with a slender home victory over Aberdeen secured only courtesy of a goalkeeping blunder by Jamie Langfield in the closing stages, may in other circumstances have raised doubts over Celtic’s prospects of lifting the trophy again at the end of the season. But in the absence of the traditional challenge from Rangers, even defeat for Celtic at the weekend would not have prompted anyone to seriously debate the eventual outcome of the title race. It is why Lennon arguably faces the most crucial 90 minutes of his tenure so far in Finland on Wednesday night. Without any credible or sustained threat to Celtic’s domestic dominance, the need for European progress is inevitably heightened.
In that sense, Lennon now finds himself in an unprecedented situation for a manager of either Celtic or Rangers in the modern era. In the past, failure to make any telling impact on the European stage could always be either masked or compensated for by ensuring superiority on the home front at the expense of the other half of the Old Firm. For a significant constituency of supporters, holding the bragging rights over the other side of the Glasgow divide has been sufficient to atone for any continental shortcomings.
Lennon, through no fault of his own, is no longer afforded that kind of insurance. His desire to become only the third Celtic manager, after O’Neill and Gordon Strachan, to lead the club into the group stage of the Champions League is underpinned by a fierce ambition to enhance his personal development as a coach. But it will also be fuelled by a recognition that he will remain unfulfilled in his current position if he is unable to oversee at least one positive campaign among Europe’s elite clubs.
Like his team, Lennon is very much a work in progress as a manager. Last season’s Europa League group stage involvement, although ultimately unsuccessful, evinced signs that he was coming to terms with what is required to compete with opponents from bigger and technically superior leagues.
If Celtic can see out the job in Helsinki on Wednesday, as they take a 2-1 lead into the second leg of their Champions League third qualifying round tie against HJK, then Lennon will be assured of group stage European football once more. Defeat in the next stage of Champions League qualifying, the play-off round, would see Celtic fall into the safety net of the Europa League. Lennon, however, knows he must aim higher and have the Champions League anthem resounding at Celtic Park on at least three nights this season. That has become his benchmark.
Hopefully we’ve seen the last of a GB Olympic football team
PERHAPS nothing has better illustrated the ill-fitting nature of football as an Olympic sport as its part in Saturday’s astonishing and breathless series of events at London 2012.
When BBC anchor Gary Lineker suddenly directed us to the penalty shoot-out at the Millennium Stadium between Team GB and South Korea, it seemed like the most unwelcome interloper on a day which had just delivered an unprecedented haul of gold medals for the British athletes.
For it is hard to believe that the exit of Stuart Pearce’s squad from the tournament at the quarter-final stage, with Celtic’s Ki Sung Yueng netting the winning spot-kick, would have dampened the otherwise buoyant mood throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Those who insisted in the build-up to the London games that it was unthinkable for Team GB not to field football teams in their home Olympics may now even admit that we could quite easily have lived without them. They have been a sideshow, just as the under-23 competition itself inevitably must be, despite Fifa’s financially motivated determination to ensure it remains part of the Games.
The Olympics, as the first week of competition has illustrated in memorable fashion, is an occasion for the vast majority of other sports to enjoy a prominence and spotlight that football simply takes for granted.
Those rowers, cyclists and track and field athletes who dedicate themselves to four years of punishing preparation for one day at the pinnacle of sport should not have to share their time with professional footballers for whom the Olympics is essentially a minor consideration in their careers.
Hopefully, the return of Team GB on the football field will prove to have been a one-off and an instantly forgettable one at that.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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