It’s almost a year to the day now that I was sat at Rugby Park watching both the re-birth and death of our title challenge last season. While Tony Mowbray’s Celtic were trailing Rangers in the title race, Robbie Keane had joined on loan and given our drip drab of a season a much needed shot in the arm.
As a Celtic fan based in England the football talk rarely comes round to the SPL but with the talk in England being about Keane wearing the hoops you knew this was a bid deal. We walked into Rugby Park with our heads held high and with expectations of wrangling the SPL title away from Rangers but it just wasn’t to be. It was Chris Maguire and Kilmarnock who stole the headlines to win 1-0 and thus ended our title challenge on that cold February night.
Sure there was the defeat to Rangers, 4-4 draw with Aberdeen and we can even point the finger at the 4-0 loss to St Mirren which saw Mowbray finally sacked but it was the defeat to Kilmarnock which killed the Keane euphoria that had engulfed the club and ushered in the start of the Lennon era.
Lennon managed to win all 8 of the remaining league games although the side did crash out of the Scottish cup at the semi-final stage to Ross County. Despite the cup defeat Lennon managed to steer Celtic to only 6 points behind Rangers which possibly tells us more of how Mowbray lost the dressing room rather than Lennon’s ability to manage.
So what’s changed in a year? Out goes the journey men and dead wood from last season including Fortune, Kamara, Naylor, N’Guemo as well as some genuine talent in Keane, McGeady and Boruc.
With all these players leaving a second squad re-building was needed to be done within a year. Rather than draft in high-profile EPL players like in previous years. Lennon went about his business picking and choosing relative unknowns. Charlie Mulgrew, Daniel Majstorovic, Joe Ledley and Cha Du Ri came in on free’s. Honduran Izaguirre for £700k from Montagua, Biram Kayal for £1.4m from Maccabi Haifa and Gary Hooper, possibly his best signing to date signed from Scunthorpe United for £2m. Despite all Rangers financial problems, it was ironic to see that in the recent New Year’s derby, the team Lennon had put together had only cost a quarter of the team at Walter Smith’s disposal.
Despite winning our first seven SPL games Lennon’s first season so far has reminded us that disaster is only around the corner. The European exits to Braga in the Champions League and Utrecht in the Europa League hurt badly. But perhaps after the disaster of last season we need a season without the distraction of European football to steady the ship and continue the re-building process of the squad.
Our first defeat of the season to Rangers and the three home games drawn in November were massive hits on the pitch as have been the dwindling home attendances possibly due to bad weather or more likely discontent with the board (that’s another argument for another day) but it’s amazing what a New Year’s day victory at Ibrox can do for morale.
There’s a sense of optimism that is creeping back into the lifeblood of the club especially with the way Lennon handled himself at Ibrox. As a player he would’ve lapped up the appreciation from the Celtic faithful but from his comments after the match you could already sense he was looking ahead at building rather than taking the plaudits.
Now I’m sure your wondering when exactly will I bring up Referee’s? Considering Lennon has had a very vocal voice in the problem’s Scottish Referee’s have had this year. The simply answer is I won’t go into it too much. I understand completely where Lennon is coming from in some of the outrageous decisions given against Celtic, one or two I could understand some honest mistakes but things are certainly happening more often to be more than mere ‘mistakes’. I also feel he’s been vilified a little bit too. While he certainly went over the top at Hearts which he is currently fighting a ridiculous six match ban for, his conduct since has been very good considering the decisions against the team. But I don’t want to end this article on such a sour point.
Initially I was concerned with Lennon’s appointment but he has without a doubt grown into the role and is developing himself as a manager, sure we will have more blips as does everyone but with our young squad seemingly growing alongside the manager the long term future on the pitch seems promising indeed.