If Neil Lennon was in a boxing ring instead of a football dugout, he’d be giving it the jelly legs right now, wobbling under the weight of blows but refusing to go down.
Whatever people think of him at the moment – and the language is becoming more brutal by the day – nobody can deny that the Celtic manager is made of tough stuff, so he stands up and fights. It’s what he’s been doing for the best part of two decades.
Celtic fans who think a lot of him want him to go with whatever grace is left in this sorry saga. They know that Lennon is not giving up so they’re looking to his corner to throw in the towel.
There’s no towel, though. No end. There’s just a statement from Celtic Park backing their man’s capacity to bounce off the ropes and upset the odds. And now there’s a banner. Another one. “Shoot The Board” it says. There is now an epic nature to this meltdown.
So we wait. Lille on Thursday, Kilmarnock on Sunday, Hearts in the Scottish Cup final the Sunday after.
There are two schools of thought here. The first will tell you Lennon’s reprieve is a grim illustration of a delusional board devoid of strategic planning and recklessly blind to the obvious and irreconcilable breakdown in Lennon’s management of the team.
The other school, more a prefabricated hut of believers, say it’s an admirable reflection of the board’s loyalty to Lennon after all that he’s done for the club.
The stadium might be hushed but the temperature around the club is at fever pitch. As Celtic’s bid for 10-in-a-row went on its rocky journey from probable to possible to improbable, the rancour has risen.
It’s not just Lennon that the fans are focusing on, it’s Peter Lawwell, the chief executive, and Dermot Desmond, the majority shareholder. The entire board are in the dock, all up on a charge of being asleep at the wheel and wasting Celtic’s vast financial advantage over Rangers.
We don’t know where this story is going, but we do know where it’s at. And it’s extraordinary.
Lennon is being trusted, for now, to pull things back from the brink, but the faith in him has largely gone among the support. From ‘you’ll never walk alone’ to walking with a police escort. From ‘we are all Neil Lennon’ to ‘Neil Lennon, get tae…!’.
Given the history between the man and the fans, it’s come to a desperate place.
‘It’s like Lennon has gone full circle’
In June 2010, Lennon was confirmed as Celtic’s new manager. It was past midnight when the deal was done. After shaking hands, he went out to clear his head. He strolled out into the stadium and had the place to himself.
“I have walked down that tunnel hundreds of times but I had never seen it as serene as that,” Lennon said. “It was dead still. There wasn’t a soul in the ground. There was no light apart from the moon. I had never seen the place look so good.”
Lennon said later that he wanted to bring back the thunder, the passion, the noise to Celtic Park, the kind of atmosphere that had been lost under his predecessor Tony Mowbray.
Mowbray had spoken about long-term plans, but Lennon had no truck with that thinking. “See projects?” he said, on his appointment. “Forget it. I’m sick of hearing about two or three-year plans. Projects are something my daughter does at school.”
Lennon had been interim manager in Mowbray’s wake for 76 days before he was finally confirmed in the role. He had been sidelined previously, a coach but not one who travelled to games with the players or one who was allowed to sit in the dugout with the management.
He had won 11 trophies as a Celtic player and captain in a golden era, but had to be patient before the big job came his way. He’d spotted a “weakness in mentality” among the squad and vowed to change it. “I want players who refuse to lose,” he said. Listening to him lately, it’s like he’s gone full circle.
Resilience accompanied by results
Celtic fans loved him then. They loved him for what he had been on the field and for what he promised to be as a manager. They loved him for talking about his battle with depression. They loved him for standing up to sectarian abuse that came spewing out of the mouths of fans from other clubs. They loved him for refusing to back down when he was physically assaulted by bigots in the street and targeted by sinister forces through the mail.
The bomb in the post episode was like a hurricane in the Scottish game. April, 2011. The Irish Catholic manager of Celtic having to move to a safe house with his family. All right-thinking people were horrified.
Celtic fans gathered at the stadium the night the news broke and had a candlelit vigil for their manager. Some might have mocked them for a kind of mawkishness but their support was heartfelt. That’s where the ‘We Are All Neil Lennon’ mantra came from. That’s when they started singing about Neil Lennon ‘never walking alone’.
Lennon faced it all. He wasn’t cowed or silenced. “The first day I stepped on to the pitch at Windsor Park as a Celtic player, I was booed every time I touched the ball having previously played 36 times and had nothing,” he once remarked. “It was my association with Celtic, being high profile – there’s no question in my mind that as the reason behind it. You call it sectarianism, I call it racism.”
Being courageous wouldn’t have been enough on its own, though. Had resilience not come with results, then he wouldn’t have lasted.
But the results were good. He signed well, he brought some big European nights back to Celtic Park, he had big names such as Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta eulogising the atmosphere. Celtic people never tire of hearing stuff like that.
Lennon won trophies and could do no wrong. There’s a snapshot late in his first spell as Celtic manager that’s instructive when set alongside what’s going on now, though. It was in Amsterdam after a 1-0 loss to Ajax in the Champions League in November 2013.
The manager kept his shape in the news conference but in the off-the-record huddle later on he was apoplectic about his players’ weak will and frustrated about his inability to invest more heavily to freshen his squad.
‘Like Celtic, Lennon has become diminished’
From going bonkers about a 1-0 away defeat by Ajax in the Champions League to trying to rationalise a 2-0 home defeat by Ross Country in the League Cup is quite a fall, not just for the manager but for the club.
The Brendan Rodgers years gave Celtic a glimpse of glamour, but it was brief. The club had already started to recruit poorly under the Northern Irishman and that carried on in his wake.
The stellar signings slowly but surely were outnumbered by the duds. Colossal amounts of money, in Scottish football terms, were wasted on transfer fees and wages. The decision-making at Celtic, so good for so long, has been blurred for quite a while now.
Regardless, most still thought that the 10 would be completed relatively comfortably this season, but the wheels have fallen off in a spectacular, almost surreal, way. Initially, the dip in form looked like the kind of rut that Lennon has dug them out of before, but it turned out to be more serious this time.
Losing form and belief when Rangers are weak is a recoverable situation. Losing form and belief when Rangers are strong is an entirely different thing.
The relentless nature of the Ibrox side’s performances has taken all at Celtic by surprise. That surprise has led to panic about their own inability to regain what has been lost. The more they search the more elusive the solution becomes.
Lennon has spoken of the things his team is lacking – urgency, speed, penetration, professionalism, magic, verve, personality, hunger, fitness, excitement, attitude, confidence, concentration. All of those were his own words. The check list is off the scale, as is the size of the recovery job.
Like the club he manages, Lennon has become diminished in recent months. The players are the only ones who can fix this. Lennon is the only one who can fix the players. But who fixes Lennon?
Two wins in 12. Twenty-eight goals conceded in a dozen games. Out of the League Cup, out of the Europa League, and off the pace in the Premiership. Where before there was certainty and clarity at Celtic there’s now just a giant question mark, about everyone and every thing.