There was a time six or seven years back when cheap, shit Neil Lennon masks were all the rage in Glasgow. They could be found at merch stands on the road up to Celtic Park or in those mad 24/7 convenience stores in the city centre (the ones with white tiger stuffed toys in the window); the two dark voids where the eyes had been snipped out providing a window into the soul of those that chose to wear one.
There must still be a pile of those masks lying in the corner of a cash and carry somewhere, and if so the owner would be wise to give them a polish up and ready them for sale. Because pretty soon a large proportion of Glesga’s football commentariat are going to be donning their Neil Lennon masks – metaphorically, at least.
In fact it’s already begun.
Scott Brown tried his on for size after last weekend’s 2-0 win at Hibs, stating: “As long as we keep winning we’ll give him the chance to become manager beyond the summer.”
Then on Monday John Hartson came down from Mount Sinai with the following wise proverb, communicated to the masses via his Evening Times ghostwriter: “Just give him the job and let him get on with it.”
Galling as it is, this stuff is inevitable. Broony and Big Bad John are mates and colleagues of Lenny’s, so that’s their excuse, but you can expect Gordon Dalziel, Hugh Keevins, Michael Stewart, Steven Thompson, Chris Sutton, Kris Boyd, Kris Commons, Ewan and Roughie (they still a thing, naw?) and Paul the Tim to weigh in with hot takes (or lukewarm, undercooked ones) before and after every Celtic match between now and the end of the season.
“The situation regarding the appointment of Celtic’s next permanent manager is a complicated one with many different variables at play therefore I will forego expressing a definitive opinion until the end of the interim period Mr Lennon has been appointed for” would be the sensible, logical thing to say, but I don’t see that big Sutton hitting out with that any time soon, do you?
The relentless daily churn of football analysis and opinion nowadays wouldn’t allow it. If Lennon so much as wins his next three games, at home to Aberdeen, away to Dundee and at home to Rangers – which he should, let’s be honest – you can expect that conga line of Lenny mask wearers to stretch the length of Duke Street.
I didn’t want to write this article. Or, to be exact, I didn’t want to write this precise article, not to start with anyway. Last week I ended up having the most frenetic, confusing, exasperating, embarrassing and ultimately cathartic 48-hour period that I personally can remember in the life of Celtic Football Club, and being a pretentious journo type my impulse was to write a 10,000 word treatise on the ‘storm und drang’ of it all, specifically focused in on Brendan Rodgers and the nature of his betrayal.
But by the time I got round to sitting down to write it there didn’t seem any point. Don’t get me wrong, on the sliding scale of Rodgers hatred, while I’m not quite grouped in the demographic that want him hung, drawn and quartered with the different body parts sent to official Celtic stores across the country as a warning, I’m still…pretty gosh-darn cheesed off with the guy.
To chuck my own Rodgers excoriation onto the pile at that point would have felt a bit like that “Stop, stop, he’s already dead” Simpsons meme though, and besides, on-field events had moved so quickly during the intervening period that he genuinely, without wanting to sound superficially blasé about it all, already felt like yesterday’s news.
The whole climate around Celtic would be very different right now if there had been a week without a game after Lennon arrived, or two home games against relegation fodder. Instead there were two away games in four days, played at venues where Celtic have a shoddy record in recent times, with massive potential repercussions for the treble-treble. It should have been the worst possible itinerary for a supposedly wounded/bereaved/cuckolded club with an interim manager just in the door, but it was the opposite.
The players reasserted their quality and fighting spirit and the celebrations when Eddy smacked in his 92nd minute winner at Tynecastle and those two screamers hit the net at Easter Road felt thrillingly defiant; a reaffirmation of what makes the club special and of how no amount of snideyness and condescension from English fans and pundits can diminish it.
Lenny – obviously – was right in amongst it, cupping his ears and bear-hugging KT, and in the fleeting moments when those images of him giein’ it laldy flashed up on screen you could almost physically feel the Sellik Da Swingometer lurching decisively in his favour.
After a week when Brendan’s many odd attempts to mythologise himself as a ‘real Celtic man’ had been laid out and comprehensively debunked, suddenly we were confronted with the genuine article, and it was strangely seductive, like the archetypal girl that you split up with back in fourth year but are absolutely infatuated with when you bump into her and she’s got a new hairdo a few years later.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of Celtic fans out there who would take Lennon as permanent boss right now, and I’m talking about sane, rational people here, not the ones who’ve still got Something Inside So Strong as their ringtone.
The man did answer Celtic’s call when they needed him after all, and as easy as it is to say, “Of course he did, since he was here last time he’s been sacked by a team sat 24th in the English Championship and another sat 7th in the Scottish Premiership”, he still deserves credit for doing so at the drop of a hat, seemingly without any assurances that he’d have a job beyond the summer. It’s also fair to point out that, while Tynecastle was a bit of a slog, the second half at Easter Road was one of the best 45 minutes Celtic have produced in a big game this season.
Certain aspects of a team’s play can become stale even against a backdrop of relentless success and the little tweaks Lennon made, such as trying out a front two and moving James Forrest central, felt like a breath of fresh air.
BUT. There’s a ‘but’ here, and it’s a big, bold, 72pt monster. It’s probably been said every time there’s been a change of manager at Parkhead since time immemorial, but it’s especially important that Celtic get this particular appointment right.
Whoever comes in is immediately going to be met with a discredited board, a disintegrating squad and a disillusioned fanbase. A treble-treble might change one of those factors, but not all three. With at least three regular starters likely to depart a side that’s already been crying out for reinforcements in certain areas for three or four transfer windows, more than anything else the new man has to be someone who, with his charisma, his vision for the future or his stature within the game, can sway a decent standard of player to want to sign a permanent contact with Celtic.
And as of right now, Lennon doesn’t feel like that man.
Fetching as he looks in a green-and-white hooped hat and scarf combo, the Marco Rose rumours still feel slightly fanciful given how high his stock is at the moment, but if there is a genuine chance of it happening Peter Lawwell and co should absolutely throw the kitchen sink at it, and to hell with anyone that invokes the words ‘Paul Le Guen’.
Of the less fanciful candidates, Jack Ross jumps out as someone bright and personable who offers continuity with the Rodgers era after his big bonding seshes with Brendan at Lennoxtown.
But I don’t intend to bore you by running through each and every candidate here, mainly because I’m not against the Lennon appointment at absolutely any cost. Choosing between him and Steve Clarke, for example, feels a bit potato-potata.
The fact remains, however, that Lennon’s record in Europe – THAT season aside – and his domestic cup record were poor first time around, and nothing can be extrapolated from his time with Bolton or Hibs to suggest either of those things have changed.
Then there’s his personality, something that’s never easy to touch on without running the risk of straying into groan-inducing ‘he brings it oan himself’ territory, but needs must. The 47-year-old has always had a knack for confounding both his worst critics and his strongest sympathisers; more erudite and thoughtful than he’s given credit for yet still prone to some quite ridiculous fits of temper.
Sorry to keep bringing him up, but one of Brent-an’s favourite pieces of jargon was ‘emotional intelligence’, and it’s a quality that Lenny, for all there is to like about him, doesn’t seem to have accrued enough of over the years. There was something a bit preposterous about listening to him talk about how much he’s matured during his unveiling press conference, just a matter of weeks after he allegedly took half the Hibs squad a square go.
Brass tacks though – do we really think this Celtic board has the balls not to crown him if he does the treble-treble? The dream scenario is a treble-treble followed by such an impressive appointment that Lennon can tip his cap and walk away with pride intact, hopefully having rebuilt his reputation enough to lever himself into a decent job elsewhere. It would take a miracle, but miracles, as Cyrus said in The Warriors, is the way things ought to be.