Why Celtic board is giving Neil Lennon time - but how long has he got?

There was a visceral reaction from sections of Celtic’s fanbase to the hardly revelatory news that Neil Lennon retains the backing of the club’s board.

Neil Lennon is down but should not be counted out just yet as Celtic manager (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Indeed, the uproar to the club’s recent travails – exemplified by the need to stage a late two-goal comeback simply to scrape a draw at Easter Road – was best articulated by a rival Pemiership manager in private recently. The mania over 10-in-a-row, he said, was causing people “to lose their ****” in demanding Lennon’s head on a platter.

The desperate recent form of the Scottish champions suggests they are far from deserving of that label. Yet even if his side are mired in the doo-doo as a consequence of claiming only two wins from their past eight games, Lennon is deserving of a respect not being accorded him by a support given to serenading they are “faithful through and through”.

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It is understandable that Celtic’s myriad problems, which have left them trailing a Rangers who have played two games more than them by 11 points, have rocked belief among the club’s followers in Lennon’s ability to deliver the hallowed 10. What is harder to fathom, though, is their self-righteous indignation over the Celtic board believing Lennon has earned the opportunity to dig the team out of their current hole. Likewise, the fury over the 49-year-old having no intention to step away from his position.

Parallels between the end of Billy McNeill's second spell as Celtic manager and where Neil Lennon currently finds himself do not stand up to scrutiny

Specious precedents

The venting that has raged online runs something like this: Lennon is a club legend, without doubt, but that should not inure him from the sack when Billy McNeill, the ultimate club icon, was shown the door. A truly bonkers parallel this. Lennon has won all four domestic trophies contested since his return in February 2019, and is within a Scottish Cup final of a fifth – a success that would bring up an unprecedented quadruple treble for the club. Celtic, for all their shortcomings in the past eight weeks, have lost only one domestic fixture in the calendar year of 2020. Moreover, in all competitions, they haven’t lost an away game over this period.

McNeill’s last two seasons in charge were entirely barren. Moreover, his penultimate campaign brought a fifth place that made for only the second season in 26 the club failed to qualify for Europe. Two consecutive years without participation on the continent were only avoided with a win away to St Johnstone in his final competitive game at the helm.

Tony Mowbray and Ronny Deila have been invoked as managers not given the same latitude as Lennon by the Celtic board. Again, the comparisons simply do not stack up. Neither had merely one sequence of desperate outcomes, but numerous such spells. Ah but, Mowbray lost his job on the back of only two wins in eight games, it has been argued. He was relieved of his position on the back of a 4-0 loss away to St Mirren … not a 2-2 draw away to Hibs.

Martin O'Neill celebrate the 2001 treble-earning Scottish Cup win with Neil Lennon and is now be floated as his replacement

How much time will his board give Lennon?

Celtic should be closer to Rangers than they are presently. Lennon knows that full well. Even allowing for the two games in hand for his team. Yet, it is the excellence of Steven Gerrard’s side, who have enjoyed their best first 15 games of a top-flight campaign in more than half a century, that accounts for the daunting-looking gap. The two clubs are forever measured up against one other, and on that front Celtic are coming up well short. Were it not the 10 season, though, it is unlikely Celtic supporters would be demanding the axe fall on Lennon instantly, with six months of the league campaign still to be contested. No-one was demanding that Brendan Rodgers be jettisoned at the same stage of the 2018-19 season … despite the fact he had accumulated fewer points from the first 13 league games than is true of Celtic this season.

There is no question that Lennon is on the precipice. Yet, the entirely reasonable thinking of the Celtic board is that more evidence is required before they deliver the harshest verdict. They expect Lennon and his men to be in a better position than now when the dust settles on the January 2 derby at Ibrox. In league terms, Celtic have a run of games that would suggest this is not wishful thinking. They have four consecutive home Premiership fixtures - against St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Ross County and Dundee United – and a trip to Hamilton between these final two Parkhead encounters before a potentially decisive derby. Rangers’ current form is exceptional, but has been achieved without any significant injury and Covid-19 concerns for Gerrard. It remains to be seen if the Ibrox men can remain faultless if forced to deal with issues that have undoubtedly hampered their bitterest rivals.

Of course, Lennon knows himself that were Celtic to be pasted both by Sparta Prague on Thursday and then County in the League Cup on Sunday, the jig would be up for him. It just isn’t yet.

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The lack of an obvious alternative

The bloodlust to remove Lennon fails to consider a factor firmly in the minds of the Celtic board: who would be guaranteed to be a more effective replacement? There is no Rodgers waiting in the wings. The chat over Eddie Howe and Mark Hughes doesn’t fully recognise that Scottish football is a far from glamorous domain. There has been chat about turning to former Celtic managers in Gordon Strachan or Martin O’Neill and asking them to take the reins for the remainder of the season. Both would have merit. Equally, it is worth noting that though hugely successful in their first stints, these ended with them being bested and pipped to the title by a Rangers side on the up.

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