FOUR weeks ago, Neil Lennon left Hibernian under something of a cloud. An alarming dip in form saw the Hibees in eighth place and rumoured unrest with players and the board led to him leaving Easter Road after two and a half years at the helm.
If anyone had told him then that he’d be back at Celtic a month later, he’d have thought they’d lost the plot!
Yet nearly five years after walking out on the club, Lennon is back in the Celtic Park dugout on an interim basis until the end of the season with two goals to achieve – sew up an eighth consecutive League title and lead the club to a historic Treble Treble with a Scottish Cup win in May. It’s an incredible turn of events for Lennon, who was due to fly out on holiday before answering the SOS call from Peter Lawell in the wake of Brendan Rodgers shock departure to Leicester City.
With Celtic fans naturally reeling at Rodgers decision to quit Celtic with 11 Premiership games to play and, potentially, three Scottish Cup fixtures, Lawell needed a safe pair of hands to get through to the end of the season as they chase that unprecedented third consecutive treble. Lennon’s first spell delivered three titles, which started the current haul of seven in a row, and two Scottish Cups in that four year spell. In addition, the Bhoys also reached the last sixteen of the Champions League in 2012/13, famously beating Barcelona at Parkhead before eventually succumbing to Juventus.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing on the domestic front for the man who’d won ten trophies with the club as a player under Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. Ross County, Rangers, Kilmarnock, Hearts and St Mirren all claimed victories against Celtic in Semi Finals and Finals at Hampden and his side also suffered a shock home defeat by Morton, who went on to be relegated from the Championship, in the League Cup. If Celtic are to clinch a third Scottish Cup for the first time in their history, and with it a historic Triple Treble, Lennon will need to ensure that his players don’t repeat those Hampden Ghosts from Lennon’s past and show the form that has delivered a record equalling seven consecutive trophies.
They are on course to beat that record by securing that eighth trophy with an eighth consecutive Premiership title, and currently sit with an eight point lead ahead of arch rivals Rangers at the top of the table. For Lennon, it’s a case of building on momentum as Celtic have won all domestic League and Cup matches since the winter break in order to hold off Rangers challenge and battle their way back to Hampden for the Scottish Cup Final.
Ironically, Lennon’s first game back as Celtic Manager is a return to Tynecastle to face Hearts, where he was subjected to separate assault and coin throwing incidents from his first Celtic tenure and then at Hibs. That is followed by a quick return to Easter Road just over a month after he departed under a bit of a cloud with rumours of bust ups with players and Chief Executive Leanne Dempster, with a confidentiality agreement preventing the real reasons being declared public. Talk about a warm welcome back!
Whilst Lennon’s return may be good for the short term is a good fit, the Celtic fans will be split as to whether or not the appointment should become permanent in the summer.
After a good first two seasons at Hibs, where they won promotion back to the Premiership and finished a very credible fourth in the table, Lennon’s tenure at Easter Road ended badly. They went on a horrendous run of just two wins from 14 League games that saw them plummet from second to eight in the table. There were also rumours of discontent in the dressing room with players allegedly unhappy at his constant public rants against them in the wake of defeats.
On the flip side, Lennon has a huge desire to win, emphasised in his spells as a player and manager at Celtic, and he likes to push his players to meet those demands. Perhaps the current Hibs squad, which had lost some key players like John McGinn, Dylan McGeough and Scott Allan, were not good enough to reach the heights Lennon thought they could and it led to his departure.
Europe is another key area for Celtic, who are desperate to make an impression on the Champions League and still smarting from missing out on the group stages this season. It is arguable that Lennon’s European record is better than Rodgers, who oversaw the worst ever European result (the 7-0 mauling in Barcelona) and the worst ever home European result (the 5-0 defeat by Paris St Germain, who also trounced them 7-1 later in the campaign). Lennon also had an eye for a bargain and brought the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper to the club, whom were all sold for a massive profit.
That still doesn’t mean that the man who started Celtic’s run of League titles should now be the one to finish their record breaking ten in a row that the fans crave, and there will be others in the frame to succeed the man who won every single honour available to him. Kilmarnock’s Steve Clarke is another who will be in contention, though recent sectarian abuse may be a stumbling block from his perspective, whilst David Moyes name is another being handed about in the bookies lists.
Like nine years ago, Neil Lennon is being given the chance to earn a permanent job over the last two months of the season, albeit in much different circumstances to the mess he inherited from Tony Mowbray’s disastrous spell in charge. The onus is on him to keep the Celtic machine going and deliver the two trophies required for that much craved Triple Treble, which would be a good way to get through a job interview in May.
If he can do that, the ghosts of his last three months at Hibs will be quickly forgotten and Celtic fans will soon be saying “Brendan Who?”