The incessant will-he, won’t-he over Neil Lennon’s prospects of being upgraded to permanent Celtic manager at the end of this season hasn’t drowned out the cacophony that inevitably accompanies the build-up to any derby – even a dead rubber of a fixture that sees Celtic head to Ibrox this lunchtime for the final meeting between the adversaries this season with an eighth straight title safely secured.
There is no question, though, that Lennon’s future has remained a hum in the background throughout this week. Presently, the noises off stage are that the interim boss will make way for a new man, with the name of David Moyes gathering currency in recent days.
It is impossible to determine the accuracy of such speculation but it is equally impossible not to have a degree of sympathy about the position in which Lennon finds himself.
Were he to post the 90-point haul he is targeting with victories in the club’s final two Premiership outings before clinching the treble treble through triumphing over Hearts in the Scottish Cup final on 25 May then Lennon would be entitled to feel he has done enough to land the job on a permanent basis for a second time around. Any other outcome could be presented as unfair on him, but the 47-year-old acknowledged the other week that football isn’t always fair.
There can be a temptation to see every media conference Lennon gives through the prism of his knowing what lies ahead for him. So it was with his sideswipes about Rangers on Friday over their discipline and their decision not to give the champions a guard of honour. Here was a man who could throw some shade because he doesn’t have to concern himself about casting any shadow in the rivalry next season, some said.
Yet, against this, Lennon once more gave the impression of a man very much involved in forward planning for the club’s nine-in-a-row quest in the forthcoming season. Asked if Rangers’ development under Steven Gerrard this season would make them stronger challengers for the title next season, the Celtic interim said: “I’m not sure. We will be. I guarantee you that, but I can’t comment on Rangers being stronger or not.”
Lennon offered an emphatic “yes” when pressed on whether current moves behind the scenes were encouraging on that front. “There’s a bit of rebuilding to be done, there’s no question of that,” he said, with yesterday seeing the club’s head of recruitment Lee Congerton leaving to link up again with Brendan Rodgers, the pair reunited at Leicester City. “Like all great teams, they have a cycle and then there’s a turnover and we’re at that stage now where there needs to be an injection of quality and freshness into the squad. That’s the general plan for next season.”
Familiarity and flaws that unavoidably emerged across his four-year first spell as manager, from 2010 to 2014, have blinkered a sizeable number of Celtic supporters to the worth of Lennon, both in terms of his pedigree and his performance as interim since stepping into the breach following Rodgers’ rapid departure ten-and-a-half weeks ago.
The former Hibernian manager accepted the other day that he had endured a more awkward reassimilation into the role of Celtic manager than might have been expected because of his background. “Absolutely,” he said. “It has not been a seamless or smooth transition at all. There is a different style of player, different group of players. It’s very difficult to go in because of the atmosphere around it, and it must have been difficult for the players as well, with the influence that Brendan had had on them. Not just on the field but his mentoring of them as well. They lost that voice and that presence, so they’ve handled it very well.”
Lennon has handled himself well, but Ibrox, where the hatred for him is unbridled, will be the ultimate test of the more mellow persona he has sought to adopt. All aspects of this afternoon’s confrontation might yet feed into a job audition for himself.
Lennon concedes it is easy to be sucked in by the vortex of vituperation that will confront him and his team at Ibrox, an arena at which he has experienced all forms of life since his first derby there, as a player, 18 years go.
“Very easy. Very easy,” he said. “It is the environment. It is the two tribes, it is the pride, it is all those things rolled into one. If you play on the edge – which a lot of players do, and you don’t want to take that away from them – sometimes it is very easy for even the most mild-mannered of players to lose it sometimes.” The pitfalls for the nakedly passionate can be even greater.