A League Cup tie against Ross County in Glasgow will be perceived by those inside Celtic as offering the potential for some respite for a manager that he pressure is being heaped on because the club’s last nine outings have yielded only two wins.
Yet, the same feelings were probably being privately expressed the last time the clubs met in the competition, in the semi-final at Hampden on January 31, 2016. Which just happens also to be the last occasion the subsequently all-conquering, and now quadruple treble-chasing, Celtic lost in the tournament.
Belief in then Celtic manager Ronny Deila had been drained by a dismal Europa League group campaign, the club exiting without posting a single win in a section comprising Ajax, Fenerbahce and Molde. Yet, though Lennon’s detractors have sought to draw strong parallels between his faltering now and that of Deila in his second season, these are otherwise specious. Celtic had a budget 800% greater than any league challenger then, while present runaway Premiership leaders Rangers now boast a wage spend only 23% shy of their rivals.
Uncanny, though, are the familiarity in the circumstances that allowed Jim McIntyre’s men to pull off a shock at Hampden almost five years ago, that paved their way for a first major trophy success – achieved six weeks later with a final triumph over Hibs. Celtic’s haplessness across the afternoon means the performance betrayed all the hallmarks of the recent defensively slipshod displays that have weakened Lennon’s position – a bonkers 21 goals shipped in nine games.
How it panned out
In the January 2016 semi-final, Gary Mackay-Steven gave Deila’s side a 26-second lead, only for Efe Ambrose’s accidental clip on Alex Schalk in 15 minutes to bring a red card for the Nigerian and a spot-kick converted by Martin Woods. Paul Quinn headed in a corner just after the break before Schalk hammered in the third on a counter. A miserable day for Deila was completed when Leigh Griffiths had a penalty saved by Scott Fox.
The outcome is considered the beginning of the end for Deila. It would be far more serious for Lennon were his team not now able to win at home against the Highlanders and so have their record cup-tie winning sequence ended at 35 games. Yet as the 49-year-old requires a response from his players following the soul-destroying 4-1 flailing away to Sparta Prague on Thursday, he can live with the over-the-top abuse being chucked his way by fans.
"I don't expect to be cut any slack from anybody, I don't ask for it. A little bit more respect wouldn't go amiss but that's on other people, not on me,” Lennon said. “I act in a professional, dignified manner, whether we win or lose. I don't expect to be given any plaudits, if and when we turn it around. I expect to be appreciated for doing the job by people outside the club. The appreciation comes from the players and the board and my staff – that's more than enough for me.”