A cup-tie for a club with a record run of 35 straight such successes over almost four years in which the unbeaten sequence had underpinned them claiming every domestic honour, and that pitted them against an opponent without a league win since September, ought to have offered sanctuary for the beleaguered Lennon.
The fact the Highlanders could come to Parkhead and exploit the same weaknesses that have now seen Celtic win only two of 10 games - for the first time in more than two decades - and concede an eye-watering 23 goals across these encounters means there can seem no way through this for the Celtic manager. As the angry mob that gathered at Celtic Park to vent their fury within an hour of the defeat made plain with their “Lenny get tae f***’ chants.
The trophy-snaring run had to end some time. But to end in such abject fashion, at home to a team without a win in the east end of Glasgow in 12 previous attempts, leaves Lennon’s position untenable. He continues to spout hollow defiance but it would practically represent an act of mercy for club powerbrokers Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell to put their man out of his misery.
Celtic players’ heads are gone
Jock Stein once said 11 dustbins arranged on a football pitch could be competitive. Right now, you would not bet on Lennon’s team winning such a contest. It might seem that a penalty and a corner, yet again, did for Celtic. That would be a superficial reading. Celtic are a team that have imploded so spectacularly that the players’ wrecked heads would ensure they found a way to come up short, whatever the circumstances.
Whether that is losing 4-1 home and away to a Sparta Prague team themselves enduring otherwise rotten form, or being lanced by a County side that have seemed altogether lacking otherwise, it doesn’t seem to matter. The wooliness messing with the minds of the Celtic players means instinctively they are taking the wrong options in defence, snatching at chances, and playing with an uncertainty and apprehension deadly to football teams that rely on poise, balance and command. There is only one way to address such an intractable situation and that is giving the squad a new voice, a new leader.
It is precisely what brought the transformation in a Celtic playing squad all too capable of serving up such cup calamity - and to Ross County, no less, in the 2016 semi-final that had been their last League Cup loss - before Ronny Deila gave way to Brendan Rodgers in the summer of 2016.
Nothing seems to work
Lennon had stated he would shake up the side in the aftermath of the slamming by Sparta, but in this cataclysmic run it can feel that with every rejigged team and formation, he is basically crossing fingers and hoping something, anything, will have the desired effect.
He started with a 3-5-2, Albian Ajeti partnering Odsonne Edouard with Callum McGregor and Mohamed Elyounoussi left on the bench. For the closing stages, he brought on McGregor and Elyounoussi and switched to a 4-2-3-1, before Shane Duffy was introduced in the final minutes, with Kristoffer Ajer going out to right back. All to no avail. Celtic had a collection of opportunities, and Ajeti should have produced better than a low drive that thumped the inside of the post when through on goal midway through the first period. Just as a tuned up Edouard would have buried one of the three openings he had in the second period.
What is it about Highland clubs and Celtic cup shocks?
In two decades no clubs have humbled Celtic in cups more than Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. This latest upset was the third by County, following on from 2016 and the infamous Scottish Cup semi-final of 2010. It all felt so familiar when Kevin Clancy blew for a penalty in the 38th minute, that Ross Stewart fired straight down the middle. The fifth such time Celtic have given away such an award this season, the haplessness of Christopher Jullien attempting to swipe away a Josh Reid ball in and only succeeding in catching Stewart followed an all-to-familiar recent pattern.
As did the clinching second...which meant the two goals scored in this County cup win were exactly as the first two were in the 3-1 semi-final victory of 2016, then strikes from a spot-kick and a corner topped off with a breakaway third. When Ian Vigurs’ 84th minute corner was flicked on to the back post, Alex Lacovitti was on his own, no Celtic player in his near vicinity, and able to take his team when heading low into the net. The complete absence of a cavalry-style response from Celtic told all. There was a resignation and almost an acceptance from a squad that have let themselves down as much as their manager that their number was up in a cup-tie for the first time in what seems forever. A period which nothing lasts for.
Celtic: Barkas; Bitton (McGregor 68), Jullien, Ajer: Elhamed (Duffy 79), Rogic (Klimala 84), Brown, Christie, Laxalt; Ajeti (Elyounoussi 68), Edouard. Subs: Bain, Taylor, Duffy, Klimala, Ntcham, Henderson, Ralston
Ross County: Laidlaw; Morris, Donaldson, Iacovitti; Watson, Kelly, Vigurs, Lakin (Tilson 12), Reid (Randall 77); Paton; Stewart. Subs: Randall, Gardyne, McKay, Wright, Williamson, Munro.