Chief executive Dominic McKay and new manager Eddie Howe are expected to arrive at the club in short order over the coming days. About time, a support desperate for a Howe-style appointment since last November will contend. Not the best time, might be the retort when it comes to the scenario into which the 43-year-old former Bournemouth manager is likely to be plunged.
The Scottish Cup quarter-final draw that will force Celtic to square off with Rangers at the champions’ Ibrox home in under a fortnight, frankly is a tie the Parkhead side really could have done without so early in the competition. The most exacting assignment they could have been handed, defeat wouldn’t just end their only remaining hope of silverware from this sorry season. It would instantly puncture the sense of feelgood that would balloon from the appointment of Howe.
If the Englishman is fully engaged as Celtic manager by the close of this week, it could be awkward enough for him beginning his tenure by facing up to Livingston – one of only three teams, Rangers and Hibs the others, Celtic have failed to win against in their past two match-ups during this scarring campaign. The run of fixtures that would set off for him would be precisely a sequence he would seek to avoid at all costs. In the midweek following the Ibrox cup-tie, Celtic will travel to Pittodrie to face an Aberdeen team that will be choking to make a good impression on their freshly in-place new manager Stephen Glass.
It can’t be known now whether they then will have a Scottish Cup quarter-final to contest a matter of days later. What can be said with certainty is that Celtic’s subsequent Premiership outing – on May 2 – will see them back at Ibrox for an encounter likely to be framed as their last chance to prevent their sworn enemies achieving an unbeaten league season. A feat that would take a layer of the sheen off Brendan Rodgers’ treble-winning ‘invincibles’ from only four years ago, that team the only one to put together an entire top flight campaign without loss since 1899.
Moreover, on that May bank holiday weekend, Celtic will also be bidding to avoid this season becoming the first since 1995-96 in which they have not enjoyed at least one win across the four derbies played between the bitter Glasgow rivals. It has been said that Howe is in for a culture shock – most recently by Neil Lennon, his immediate permanent predecessor – because the intensity of the environment in the west of Scotland is unlike anything he will have experienced on England’s south west coast. If he takes charge this week, the run of fixtures awaiting will certainly afford him a crash course in that …
There is another potentially problematic element for him. He will arrive with his own methodology and his own tactical orthodoxies. These might be at odds with how Celtic interim manager John Kennedy has been setting out the squad. Yet, any immediate and dramatic changes could undermine Celtic’s effectiveness for two monster match-ups with Rangers. And, for all their recent record in the fixture and the thumping 20-point gap between the Glasgow clubs, the diamond formation that both Lennon and Kennedy have deployed in the clubs’ past two meetings have earned Celtic control and dominance, if not victories.
Of course, there is an alternative take to be offered on Howe taking full charge this week. Unlike Lennon, he is wanted, nay craved, by the Celtic legions. Howe is the unifying candidate, the modern, progressive coach, that the board had to serve up to their fanbase following the internecine warfare that has beset the club in the past eight months. A case can be made to say, ultimately, Howe would be best served coming in with a clean slate this summer. Yet, if under him this term’s manky slate becomes even more coal-black in the closing six weeks, his hands will remain relatively unstained. It is not his Celtic’s team, and a poor end to an impoverished campaign would merely give him an early and immersive understanding of the remedial work required to be conducted before the first leg of their second round Champions League qualifier on July 21/22. The Celtic support would bear with him in such a scenario.
Furthermore, there is nothing to say that Celtic could not go on a winning run from now until the end of the season and bag a fifth straight Scottish Cup. They are flawed, but not to an irredeemable extent. It is eminently possible the fresh impetus Howe would provide would sharpen their instincts. There is precedent for such upswings. Rangers were a disaster zone under Paul le Guen in 2006-07, and 17 points behind Celtic when he left in the January of that season to be replaced by the returning Walter Smith. In the subsequent five months, Smith laid the groundwork that would allow Rangers to reach the UEFA Cup final and come within a whisker of a treble the next season.
Fast forward four years, and the same sort of revitalisation was achieved by Lennon. He was made Celtic interim on the back of Tony Mowbray sacking following a 4-0 defeat away to St Mirren in late March – the club’s seventh loss in 30 league games. Lennon’s impact was such that Celtic won every one of their final eight games in the championship. With such considerations, It could be that Howe has more to gain than lose in the short-term, however potentially arduous his introduction to Scottish football might appear.