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Neil Lennon Wins First League Title As Manager - From 15 Points Behind.
On 5th November 2011 The Zombies sat 15 points clear of Celtic but the bhoys leapfroged their oldest foes at the summit of the table to win the league Title.

On 5th November 2011 The Zombies sat 15 points clear of Celtic but the bhoys leapfroged their oldest foes at the summit of the table to win the league Title .

Neil Lennon said "I always believed we would close the gap but I didn't realise it would be so quickly, but that is testament to the players' consistency," said Lennon.

"But even though I am a young manager,I've been in football a long time and nothing is won in October and nothing is won in December.

"We have had our rough period and it wasn't nice and it wasn't nice for me but we have found our consistency and it is our job to make sure that it continues. 

The Season that needed a Reboot.

A new season and a short close season as the SPL began on 23rd July 2011, the earliest start on record start due to the forthcoming Euro Championships and for fear of another backlog of games after the long cold snap during the previous winter. The tables were turned with Rangers employing a rookie manager, Ally McCoist (or the “Fat Paul Le Guen” or “The Pieman” as he was dubbed), and Celtic were the ones with the marginally more experienced man (albeit by one season!). Was this to make a difference? Only time could tell.

On the other hand, McCoist had the more experienced backroom staff, whilst Celtic stuck with the same unconvincing young coaching team despite calls for an older head to act as an advisor. A push for a role for Martin O’Neill or even Gordon Strachan didn’t come to fruition even though Neil Lennon admitted there were proposals for a return for Strachan in some capacity. That was divisive once revealed but didn’t happen.

Looking ahead, morale was higher at Celtic relative to the same point a year before. Lennon v McCoist was expected to fall in our favour. Season ticket sales were up and all were looking forward to what the Green Brigade could conjure up this season to lift the atmosphere to the next level. It was a season to look forward to, but in retrospect it panned out in a way that no one could ever have predicted!

With the season starting early, the transfer window was still open when play began, and so at first there were few changes. Kevin Wilson was finally with the club after a six month gardening leave from his previous club, and he made a good impact in the opening game, which saw Celtic take a 2pt league lead after a 2-0 win with goals from Stokes & Ki and Rangers drawing at home.

Could have been seen as progress on the pitch but off the pitch the Press were still on Lennon’s back (quell surprise). After wrongly disallowing a fair goal by Wilson in the opening match, the Daily Record ran a back page story twisting Lennon’s words and making a mountain out of a molehill. The paper was in the wrong and portrayed him Lennon a walking timebomb. It was out of order but an early reminder of the underhand agenda that many outwith of the club had against Lennon. An easy target for too many and the support’s backing was vital.

The season gets underway

The season started quite mixed. A fair start saw us go ahead of the Huns in the table after some cracking wins and results, including a 5-1 win over Dundee Utd. It all proved to be deceptive after a very surprising 1-0 defeat at home to St Johnstone, and despite a 4-0 recovery win over Motherwell the signs were there that not all was well. Shouldn’t grumble but this is football!

As ever, the first benchmark was a match v Rangers, and the clear defeat to the Huns 4-2 at Ibrox meant that early optimism had dissipated fast. The press had shown their card prior to this defeat with a repulsive "Who is more hated at Ibrox?" headline of “Lennon v Tax Man!” in the Daily Record. After last season’s death threats to Lennon, it wasn’t helping matters. It was pathetic. Aunt Sally McCoist was laughing. His debut season as manager was turning into a walk in the park.

The Huns had leapfrogged Celtic and combined with the dismal performances against Sion in the UEFA Cup qualifiers, the mood had begun to sour against Lennon. Didn't help that our talisman Izaguirre was out injured for months after what appeared at first to be an innocuous It turned out to be for practically the whole season.

Add to that, we had developed an inability to score penalties! That should be the basics for any professional striker! At one point, out of the around six penalties in a row we had scored just two. On the positive side, new boy Kevin Wilson was impressing highly in defence whilst Stokes had got off to a strong start as well.

Concerns arose about future match attendances with the quality on the pitch down and a steep recession hitting pockets. Celtic's attendances were holding up but elsewhere in the league they were in danger of putting clubs out of business.

The Huns were in trouble financially with rumours flying around of administration. If it wasn't for our declining state we'd have taken more satisfaction from it. The taxman was chasing the Huns for a then estimated £50m! Okay that's satisfying and provided much merriment for the rest of us. Chairman Craig Whyte was being chased for dodgy dealings and it was as baffling as it was funny.

Despite the gloom, the one player who had come on leaps and bounds was James Forrest. A great right midfielder he had more than cemented a first team place and was burning up the right hand flank with nobody able to touch him. A great ability to tackle, cross and score is practically the perfect package and he was just getting better. Kenny Dalglish paid a visit to Celtic with the rumours that he was there to watch Forrest. We just hoped we could keep him (and we did). He was at a far more developed stage than even the more lauded Aiden McGeady was as the same age, but Forrest was by no means yet the complete article.

It was quite infuriating that the team were relying on a youngster. The older heads had to pull up their socks, although in fairness we had a relatively young squad and in retrospect Lennon should have managed a better balance in his squad dealings prior the season starting. He himself had whinged about being sick of experiments and players for the long-term instead of the here and now when he took the job initially. He wasn’t practicing what he had preached; a worrying sign?

A season of turns

Back to the football, and we hit a rut with a series of bad result. Worst was a 2-0 league defeat to Hearts which compounded problems. Hearts was another Scottish club in collapse financially with players going unpaid, unrest in the changing rooms and so on. It was poor that we’d been beaten by them convincingly.

If ever a game was to prove to become either the nadir or a blessing for Lennon it was the first away match v Kilmarnock. What should have been a straight forward victory turned sour when unfathomably the Celtic side collapsed with an abject performance to head into the half-time interval three goals down! There was hardly a single soul amongst the Celtic support who thought other than that Lennon had to go. Remarkably, a turnaround in the second half saw the first team claw back the deficit to steal a draw! Regardless, there was little relief at the result and instead the omens were not good. Lennon came out with bullish comments on the match but few were convinced. It was a humiliating day.

The side had unarguably slumped. The performances were pathetic and there was little heart in the team. Tactics were non-existent and every game was becoming a crisis whilst the Huns were just cruising past the opposition whilst we toiled. Lennon himself later admitted that he thought it was likely all over for him at half-time in the Killie game.

The question was to be whether if the Kilmarnock result in any way could be taken as reflective of our season to come or not. You can interpret that in various ways (e.g. the ability to come back from the brink or a team only able to retrace its steps and no more). We had to improve fast. In truth, most had already started to concede the league title. Samaras saved Lennon’s job last season in the 2-0 win in Jan 2011, was Stokes double in the 3-3 draw possibly to have the same effect? This time we had to win the league, second place was no consolation.

The most baffling match was the 0-0 draw with Hibs at end-October. Bizarrely, we’d cuffed them in the League Cup 4-1 in a delightful performance only days earlier, and yet in the following league game we’d given possibly the dullest most lethargic performance in recent years (and I include the Mowbray season). It was disheartening and the mood remained grim. At least we hadn’t lost but that was little comfort. The forums were going nuts!

Tallying it all up, at the start of November Celtic were 15pts behind Rangers in the league! Granted we had two games in hand, but it’s still a sizeable gap so early on and with our form at the time there was no confidence that we’d actually take the full points in those spare matches. The Huns’ Jelavic had already declared the league title already done & dusted: "Of course, we need to keep it going and stay in first place. But I think the 12-point lead we have on Celtic should be enough to do that”. Few disagreed and the season was being treated by the Celtic support in general as such. Mutterings against Chief Exec Peter Lawell were rising but that’s for a longer analysis elsewhere.

The humiliating fear was that Rangers could go into administration, take a ten point enforced cut and yet still win the league on points!

Must add that we were unfortunate with injuries. We’d lost Izzy, Brown (the captain), K Wilson, M Wilson, Muglrew, Rogne, Loovens, Commons and Ledley amongst others for longer spells than is usually the case. Lennon even moved the players away from Lennoxtown in belief that the surfaces there were part of the problem. Mutterings arose about Commons having a spat with Lennon, however it was likely exaggerated and Commons treated it as a joke turning up one day at training fully bandaged up. All took it well in jest and lightened the mood, and it became a PR positive with the fans seeing the funny side too despite the low morale.

The injury backlog didn’t help matters for the defence. We’d had a continual rotation of central defensive partnerships, due to injuries and lacklustre performances. This led to Majstorevic in particular getting it in the neck, deservedly so in some ways as he appeared way out of his depth. He was making too many mistakes for someone with his supposed experience.

Away from the pitch, what was to become one of the main issues, but will be left for greater discussion elsewhere, was the increasing media agenda against the Green Brigade. The GB’s staunch stance on issues was never one to endear them to everyone but at least they were sticking up for the general supporter and the core values of our support. That’s not something that the media wished to respect. Without them not only would Celtic be poorer but Scottish football would be moribund. Their colour, the noise and dedication to the ailing game was something to applaud.

Their biggest issue was trying to stop the ham-fisted anti-bigotry laws being passed by the Scottish Parliament which simply were ill thought out and poorly targeted catching too many innocent parties within its rulings. It was grandstanding by the SNP and they were looking stupid. The whole issue was backfiring on the SNP but they had gone too far down the road to turn back. Possibly the first time that anyone had seemed to unite all football supporters and many intelligent journalists together over one issue. Remarkable!

As a measure for how ridiculous things were getting, the Hearts fan who failed in his attack on Neil Lennon at a match last season was let off! Apparently “'not proven' verdict over sectarian charge” and only found guilty of breach of the peace. As journalist Graham Spiers put it succinctly: “One comfort for Neil Lennon is this: given that just about the whole world is laughing at the verdict, that in itself is a form of justice”. Scotland was becoming a joke.

The Reboot of the Season

It was as if we were starting from scratch. Finally, the ongoing debacle of sorting out the contract renewals for Brown & Kayal were sorted out. Fears were that Brown was to leave on a free post-January. He signed on with Celtic but many were still unconvinced by him. He’d a lot to prove.

Celtic were wretched so far but things were to change. The catalyst? Possibly the lower expectations following the embarrassing Sion matches and defeats at home and position way behind Rangers in the league. Paradoxically the lower expectations gave the players breathing space to just play their own game at their own pace, take each game on its own without worrying about the bigger picture and without trying any real masterplan they just seemed to improve!

There is no obvious turning point but it’s a combination of simple results. The European campaign was possibly the spur to the change. We entered the Europa League group stages with a tinge of hesitation having made it through after Sion were kicked out. All punters backed that we’d be humiliated. However things were to be different and was to be a massive fillip for the squad (see Europe Campaign section ).

A steady but admittedly generally near-knuckle results in November & December saw Celtic win games most by just the odd goal. One excellent 5-0 win v St Mirren was a great reward especially after Lennon had unconvincingly stated earlier that with the way the team was playing that someone was soon to get a doing from them. He was right and the rest of us admitted our error. The match was also notable for an incredible end-to-end solo run with the ball by Dylan McGeouch to score on his debut. Magnificent, and added bonus that we’d signed him from the Hun Juniors after he’d earlier left us for them! Redemption for the young man if he can produce more like that. It was all on the right road.

A hard won win was a one nil victory v Hearts which was saved only by a wonderful penalty save by Forster. After all the reservations on his ability it was quite a moment for him. More of these and all doubts will be buried. It actually started off a turnaround for him, and the critics just went silent. He was increasingly confident and formidable in goals.

Earlier in the season we were dropping, now at least we were winning even if it was mostly by just the one goal but three points is three points.

This run saw the first team finally begin to wear down the points difference with Rangers. The Huns likely got complacent to an extent but on the other hand they were bound to have a bit of a downturn. Their defeats by St Mirren and St Johnstone were the rub of the green that Celtic needed, and by the time we were to meet the Huns next (Dec 11), amazingly we’d eroded the points gap down from 15pts to just a single point! Hun manager McCoist was making us all laugh with his rants in the press yet he seemed to get away with it whilst our manager would be castigated for similar. There was even sympathy for McCoist from the media sycophants. Pathetic!

Some of the positive turnaround can be attributed to the impact of Wanyama. He was an unknown quantity when he arrived but quickly become a firm favourite with some fine performances. He flitted between playing in the defensive midfield role and central defence, and provided the skill and stability in both areas that was lacking before his arrival. The much maligned central defence was continually in transition with no consensus on what the best pairing was, however Wanyama’s presence gave the defence greater confidence and allowed for whoever his partner was on the day to pick their game up. He was playing beyond his years, it was a pleasant and welcome surprise, although he could take excessive risks with possession around our box.

Must add a note on the rejuvenation of both Majstorevic and Samaras. Both maligned players had hit a surprising purple patch of performances! It was good timing by both and in particular when the former was hit with injury, the support bemoaned his loss whereas previously they would have paid the taxi fare for him away from the city!

The peak was the Xmas victory over the Huns. Pathetically the match was moved forward by the police from its traditional New Years (ish) date to the 28th Dec in the evening. The place rocked on a damn windy night, which saw Celtic dominate the match. Amazingly it was a goal from a corner by Ledley that gave us the spoils. We were meant to be rotten at corners! The Huns support were in distress at the result and cried foul over a goal that wasn’t. It was fun to watch them falsely cry foul!

We’d gone top of the league for the first time in the season. Incredibly we'd turned around a 15 pt deficit. Lennon deserved the credit for turning it around, but must add that the Huns were imploding, and had begun to use the impending tax issues as a set of excuses (nonsense). The Celtic support was rejuvenated.

The January transfer window saga begins...

Lennon stated quite clearly (and repeatedly) that he wished to sell nobody despite overtures about Hooper and Forrest in particular. No surprise with El Kaddouri’s loan contract not being rolled on as Izzy was back and to be quite honest, he didn’t impress.

The January window was overall quite uneventful at Celtic and even across the UK. Basically a loan situation with many youngsters sent out for experience and only two permanent newbies in Lustig and Ibrahim.

The club failed in possibly moving on some of the surplus in the squad such as Samaras and McCourt. A loan move to Leeds for Mark Wilson fell through and the club knocked back a bid for Commons & Hooper from Southampton. Lennon had stated that he wanted to keep his squad and nobody to move on but is that actually good management?

In: Lustig (free), Ibrahim (free) and Brozek (loan).
Out: Thompson (loan), Toshney (loan), Keatings (loan) and Slane (loan).
Returns from loans: Juarez and Rasmussen (loans ended early)
The squad seemed at first quite bloated with 30 players; Rangers had just 20 due to the downsizing.

The Huns were the ones making the biggest splash on the papers, trying to ***** Jelavic around in belief they’d get their £9m (sic!) on him and ended up with an estimated £5-6m. They’d lost their only valuable asset as a player. The Daily Record finally succumbed also to the situation at the Huns, and covered 7 pages on the ensuing tax case problems at the Huns. Were they to now be in their deaththroes? We were all laughing after their excesses in the 1990/2000s . Humourously, if Rangers were to go bust, their last ever signing will be a player called Cellik (prounced “Che – lick” as we were repeatedly told).

An amazing little piece of trivia was that Celtic had amassed one of the highest number of internationals by team in Europe’s 33 leagues, we were fourth on a list headed by Barcelona (see World Soccer Magazine Jan 2012).

New year and time to keep our nose in front.

The title race had turned and the momentum was to continue with many increasingly confident displays. One curious irony was that our turnaround was being achieved despite the loss of two of our most pivot players for much of the run, Kayal and Izaguirre! Add in the other long injury spells of Brown and various others, it's been quite a feat, and a bit of a puzzle. Most had questioned the balance of the squad at the start of term season yet it was working.

The Huns' disposition should not in any way diminish what the squad was achieving. Even the best sides of the past have struggled to maintain runs like what was being earned now. Not much was needed in terms of tactics but ability, conditioning and good old fashioned dig were the bulwark of their achievements. The Huns collapse had begun after we'd forged ahead of them. Ex-Hun Hateley tried to claim our title would be 'tainted' due to the Huns tax case. Comical and the man was in need of a dictionary to understand the definition of the word. Lennon rightly came out in criticism of the Hun. ‘Tainted’ even became the byword for the season.

The situation was getting daft. Daily Record even claimed that Celtic were breaking agreements on paying money up front for tickets which was jeopardising the Huns. The club came out to unequivocally deny it (which was the factual truth), and Lennon in no uncertain terms stated that we were not going to cooperate with the media in light of the digs and unsubstantiated allegations being thrown at us.

Retrospective Look

So Lennon is deserving of much praise. Repeating the oft quoted point, he turned around the team when it was 15pts behind in the league to remarkably take the title. You will not find a single commentator on the domestic game who believed we could do it. Before sceptics put forward Rangers demise as the reason, note we'd overtaken the Huns well prior to their administration.

The first team were playing good football, they were gelling together as a squad and also creating a good rapport with the fans. Youngsters were getting their chances and grabbing them such as McGeouch and Watt, whilst Forrest was making a big name for himself. Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew were fan favourites after at one time being the boo boys for some.

The strength in the juniors was gathering plaudits from every corner, who were winning titles convincingly. Hopes are high that we can obtain see the best make it through. Fleeting opportunities given to youngsters in the season saw some remarkable results, such as McGeouch's solo run goal of the season and Watt's match winning double. Both times in their debuts.

Attendances were holding up despite the dark economic environment. We couldn't rely on hoping for full stadiums as before but the numbers were great. Crowds were rocking with the Green Brigade having now set themselves as amongst the best anywhere for generating great atmosphere (as well as controversy at times too).

Another cup final and semi-final in the domestic cups is not to be sniffed at and there were some laudable performances late on in Europe. The young squad was gaining experience, and the hope was that we could keep them altogether. Granted that we would lose some players in the summer, but there has to be squad attrition and squad turnover each season. That’s standard. We had though a nucleus to build from, and players like Brown were finally showing their worth. Charlie Mulgrew even swept the boards both at Celtic and outside for Player of the Year awards. He was gaining cult status amongst the fans.

Off the pitch, Neil Lennon continued to have his life turned to near ruin by the savage attacks on him by the Huns and pandering media, and it will have given him full satisfaction to know that his turnaround of the first team has meant that the Huns were likely pushed into administration faster than they otherwise would have. The Hun’s rapid decline created sharply falling attendances from their hordes (with the 17k at D Utd in the Scottish Cup showing this) and their situation was untenable. They were doomed. Neil Lennon will have had a dram and raised a glass (in private) to that.

Lennon does deserve high praise. However the question is whether the league title victory was possibly masking any obvious truths? To a certain extent yes and probably far more than some would wish to admit, although any dropped points did bring out the cynics who would vent lots of hot air on just about anything. Certain of their criticisms did have some merit though.

First major area of criticism was the defence. There were around 40 different combinations used for the defence in the season. That's never going to help for building a first team. Forster was the solid man in goals (around 24 clean sheets this season showed that), but in front of him was a different matter altogether. The full-backs was never an easy one, with Izaguirre and Mark Wilson out for much of the season, so we’d lost our two leading men. Ledley and Mulgrew were swapped around to fill in at left-back most times but they never suited the role. For the right-back role, Matthews fitted in well, but if he was out and Cha Du-Ri was slotted in then problems arose. Cha Du-Ri just did not convince and he became a weak point targeted by opposition teams. Cha’s own goal in the Match against Rennes was an embarrassment.

As for the central defenders, despite improving performances they generally flattered to deceive. From popular opinion the best way partnership was the young Rogne and Mulgrew. Rogne was though always injured and Mulgrew was thrown into the role coming up trumps. Danny Majstorovic, Kevin Wilson (after a bright start) and Glenn Loovens were repeatedly on a hiding to nothing, whilst others were out on loan and performing badly (e.g. O’Dea). Surely this could not be just the players' fault? We can't repeatedly be buying poor central defenders who kept on getting injured (although Loovens is far better than some give him credit for). There continues to be something wrong with the defensive coaching. It's been a repeat problem for years now. Johan Mjallby (defensive coach) must thus take some flak for this.

A big concern was over Lennon's team and tactics. If the opposition manager has any nous, then quite simply they could put together a side capable with the right tactics to tackle Celtic. We had lost too many pivotal matches due to lack of tactics. In European competition it's vital, and conditioning alone is not sufficient. A resurgent or well organised opposition at home could easily defeat us as was shown by for example Kilmarnock in the League Cup, and in truth there is little to show that Celtic had learnt from the errors. Notable examples include the cup defeats, Ibrox away in two games and the European defeats. It's a big concern, and Lennon hasn't convinced on this front. It's the strongest argument to date for why there was still a sizable number in the support who were still unconvinced over Lennon as a manager.

A frank admission that he didn’t really bother with tactics made sections of the support cringe. His honesty with his staff is admirable but in public this kind of admission can be a liability. It was a repeated criticism that he was lacking tactical intelligence in the previous season when things were at their worst and here he was confirming the complaints. Worrisome that it appeared that he had still not learnt from earlier mistakes and learning how to apply tactics. Maybe he was masking the truth and leading all on a merry dance but he wasn’t the sort to do so. It wasn’t helping matters.

The imbalance in the squad with the midfield heavy squad hadn't helped. Injuries to Stokes or Hooper saw few others capable to fill their shoes. Samaras still wasn’t producing a consistent number of goals (Charlie Mulgrew a defender had a far higher scoring rate). This had to be addressed in the summer.

Transfers were on balance good but was still much deadwood like Bangura, Brozek and El Khaddouri were failures. We can’t afford too many mistakes, and there was a lot of others we just have to shift on (one or two regrettably), including Danny Mastorevic, Daryl Murphy, Cha Du-Ri, Juarez and Paddy McCourt.

Curiously, Lennon had complained when he took on the job as manager that he was “sick of projects” and only interested in the here and now, yet his signings and squad was young with few experienced heads. It had paid off in many cases but was Lennon practising what he had preached? Maybe he wasn’t in full control of his squad. It just left questions from which you can take what you want.

Lennon also has partly been his own enemy. He had been unfairly targeted by media and authorities for supposedly being a snarling animal. This caricature is total nonsense and he is in fact no worse than any other manager. Whilst his counterpart at Ibrox was given an easy time despite an unmitigated disaster, Lennon was lambasted for just about anything. However, his rants at decisions after matches doesn't always help. We sometimes need to be more selective in the fights we pick. We know the authorities are biased against us but the circumstances at this moment were in our favour so no need to challenge every little thing. Lean against the wind and bide your time. The Huns and SFA were in trouble, so don’t interrupt your enemies whilst they are making a mistake.

Och! Too many points to make, and we don’t want to end on any bad notes! We were league champions again for the first time in 4 years, we were watching the Huns explode from their own gases. We had taken on all comers and come out with our head held high. Players were more highly regarded than they were at the same time a year ago. We had the Champions League (qualifiers) to look forward to but also a whole new Scottish Football scene following the Huns’ fiascos. Only time was to tell how it was to all pan out.

It was though once more a great feeling being a Celtic fan, but then again it always has been.

Posted by voc1967 on Thursday 26 November 2020 - 14:29:03 | Comments (0)  |  printer friendly
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