DESCRIBING any Old Firm match as meaningless is rather like describing it as a ‘Glasgow Derby’. You can say it, sure, but deep down you know you’re at it.
And so, to Neil Lennon. His biggest obstacle to landing the Celtic job on a permanent basis when he took temporary charge back in February wasn’t getting over the line to clinch the Premiership title, or overcoming Hibs and Aberdeen to reach the Scottish Cup final. It was the fact he wasn’t Brendan Rodgers.
Lennon can’t help that. And neither can he help that one of the reasons he may not now get the post permanently is that he is not Steven Gerrard.
When Lennon passionately defended his record as Celtic manager yesterday, it would have been a jolting reminder to some of just how much he has achieved while prowling that Celtic Park dugout. He has brought three league titles and two Scottish Cups to the club as a boss to back up his worthy case to be considered a legend as a Celtic player.
You could have been forgiven for thinking that Rangers had stormed to the league flag with some of the bombastic rhetoric since their impressive dismissal of Celtic on Sunday, but the hard truth is that Gerrard’s first season in Scotland will end with nothing to show for it in the Ibrox trophy cabinet, while all three domestic trophies look likely to be safely tucked away yet again on the other side of the city. And yet, that is only part of the story. It is Gerrard who is being feted, and Rangers who are – rightfully – being viewed as the coming force.
Gerrard, as it stands, can only dream about achieving a scintilla of the success that Lennon did during his first spell as Celtic boss. And yet, his position as Rangers manager is unquestioned, the scrutiny over his suitability to lead his side into next season conspicuous by its absence against the debate surrounding Lennon’s prospects.
Why? Well, star quality can only explain so much, but it certainly plays a part. Gerrard is a bona-fide legend of world football, a big name that carries that stature into the Rangers dugout and gives the club clout. The fans love having such a name associated with their club.
Brendan Rodgers, having managed Liverpool and taken them so close to a Premier League title, also had that touch of stardust about him, and given the constant state of one-upmanship that seems to exist between these warring factions, there will be Celtic fans who will insist they need a manager of similar standing in their dugout to the one of their rivals. Had Pedro Caixinha or Graeme Murty still been the Rangers manager, Lennon might well be a popular choice, and may well already have landed the job.
But for all that Gerrard is a big name, you can’t ignore the fact that he also now has this Rangers side playing with a verve, a physicality and a will to win that has been painfully lacking around Ibrox for years. Perceptions of the level of progress Rangers have made may have to be tempered by the fact they have fallen short in both domestic cups having been papped out by Aberdeen twice, and that Celtic wrapped up the league title with three games to spare. These are indisputable facts, and in any case, the closing of the gap between the teams can also partly be explained away by a significant and unmistakable regression on Celtic’s part.
But that is rather the point. You can argue how responsible Lennon is for that regression, but you can’t ignore the fall in standard of Celtic’s play under his watch if you are going to also give him credit for the wins these tiring players have ground out to limp to the brink of a historic treble Treble.
While Lennon does deserve due credit for coming in and putting his hand on the tiller after Brendan Rodgers jumped ship, if the Celtic board feel he is the man to reverse that regression next season given their lethargic showings of late under his guidance, then they may be heading for choppy waters.
The stats that should concern Celtic most about the rise of Rangers are the scores from the Old Firm matches this season. Whereas in the previous campaign, Celtic mullered their old rivals by 14 goals to two over the five matches they played, Rangers scored four to Celtic’s three goals in the four matches this term. Celtic still ended up with the title due to their consistency against the other sides, but if Rangers can remedy that, the head-to-head could feasibly fall either way next season, and subsequently, so could the title.
In the build-up to the Old Firm game, the pre-cursor excuse was already being laid. The match was not of any great importance with the league already over. Then after the game, that was being held up as the reason in some quarters for how easily Celtic were blown away by a hungry and motivated Rangers side. Quite apart from the fact that all Old Firm games clearly have significant meaning to all sides, it would be a dangerous game for the Celtic board to fall into that trap.
Instead, the victory that Rangers achieved on Sunday, and the utterly convincing manner of it, should be viewed as a clarion call for investment in both the playing squad over the summer, and in a manager who can excite the Celtic support. In much the same way, it should be said, as their board recognised after the penalty shootout defeat to Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final of 2016. The latest Old Firm encounter, like that one three years ago, seems like a watershed moment for Celtic.
So, just ask Neil Lennon if the Old Firm game was meaningless. As it stands, it looks to have blown away the last vestiges of support he had from the Celtic fans as the man to see off the challenge of Rangers next season.
While Rangers fans, as mean-spirited as it may be to say it, are now perhaps the only ones who are desperate for him to be appointed.