Alan Thompson’s Parkhead exit hints at turning point for Celtic

CELTIC’s sacking of Alan Thompson on Sunday night was a surprise for two reasons. First, it came out of the blue rather than being the culmination of the days of rumbling discontent which in football often precede the departures of managers and coaches.

Second, the first-team coach had been appointed by Neil Lennon, and had seemed close to the manager right up until the time of his dismissal.

The news from Parkhead has therefore been seen as evidence of growing ructions in the club. In reality, it may instead spell the end to a period of turmoil within the managerial camp – and even prove to be a necessary move by Lennon.

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The appointment of Thompson was made in June 2010, shortly after he left the equivalent post at Newcastle. Lennon had just been appointed manager on a permanent basis, having been caretaker since March. Johan Mjallby was confirmed as assistant manager, and Garry Parker joined, like Thompson, as first-team coach.

Of the quartet, three had played together at Celtic, while Parker had been a team-mate of Lennon’s at Leicester City. Here was a group of friends becoming colleagues, and for a time everything appeared to be working harmoniously.

Parker was the least essential member of the team, but a useful man to represent the club at public events such as Scottish Cup draws when the others had more pressing matters to attend. Mjallby was the ideal foil for Lennon: a very different character, one who could be relied upon to give an independent viewpoint.

Thompson, on the other hand, was seen as very similar to the manager. Both had been combative midfielders, and both appeared to kick every ball as they watched their team. There was another kind of similarity, too, according to a source sympathetic to Thompson. “It is thought this has something to do with Alan’s lifestyle,” that source said yesterday. “For whatever reasons there may have been deep concerns about that, but he shared a similar lifestyle to Neil and with him. The thing is, Alan knows where the bodies are buried.”

In one sense, it was inevitable that Thompson and Lennon would have “similar lifestyles”. They attended the same matches and meetings, and would therefore have the same meal breaks, and be free in the evening at the same time. But the statement that Thompson “knows where the bodies are buried” goes further than that. It sounds like a suggestion that elements of that lifestyle were too lax, and that Lennon was as culpable in that respect as Thompson.

In a statement yesterday, Celtic would only confirm that Thompson had left the club after refusing to meet Lennon in Newcastle. The club refused to offer any further explanation, saying the issue was “now in the hands of lawyers”.

It remains to be seen if the matter ever comes to court, and, if it does, whether any details emerge about respective lifestyle demerits. Until then, we shall refrain from suggesting that either man ever stayed up half an hour past his bedtime to have a second cup of cocoa.

What we can say is that both men, as players and managers, have been impassioned in their desire to win – and that at times they have been carried away by that desire. That is the norm in football, and by contrast Mjallby’s apparently greater calmness stands out as unusual. But just because something is the norm does not mean it should be accepted as a given. The most successful players and managers are those who are not content with their own behaviour, and try to keep on learning, and adapting, throughout their careers.

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Lennon has gone through so much in his short time in charge of Celtic that we sometimes forget he is still close to the beginning of his own managerial career. His achievements have been largely overshadowed by the threats to his safety and, to a lesser extent, by his frequent run-ins with the Scottish football authorities.

According to some of his detractors, he is too emotional, too self-indulgent, too much of a Celtic supporter, to ever make a lasting success of managing the club. In time they may be proved right. But whatever else he may be, Lennon is definitely far more self-aware than many of his critics think possible. He is not the type to take a step back and say sorry when people are screaming abuse at him, but in his quieter moments he is perfectly capable of analysing his own behaviour and deciding that he must learn from his mistakes.

And as the man who carries the can, he is within his rights to insist that his assistants do the same thing and also try to keep improving their effectiveness as coaches.

If it turns out that the supposed flaws in Thompson’s “lifestyle” were no worse than Lennon’s, his departure will seem harsh – especially if he went at the behest of Celtic’s directors. But, if he went because his boss decided that Mjallby’s more dispassionate approach was a better model to follow, it could turn out to be a critical staging post in Lennon’s growth as a manager.