Saturday, April 10, 2010
ESPNsoccernet: April 12, 2:50 PM UK
Ross end Lennon's hopes of succeeding Mowbray
Neil Lennon, when given the chance to cut his managerial teeth at Celtic following Tony Mowbray's dismissal, cited Pep Guardiola as proof that inexperience was not necessarily an impediment to success. It was an unwise comparison to draw and, in the light of Celtic's calamitous Scottish Cup exit to Ross County, looks all the more wildly misplaced.
Celtic's 2-0 defeat at Hampden is now written bold in the annals of Scottish footballing shocks and Celtic's embattled support, already smarting from the wounds of Mowbray's short-lived reign, will be despairing of their team's manifold recent appearances in that list of ignominy. To Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Clyde, Artmedia Bratislava and St. Mirren they can now add Ross County to the group of clubs whose names ring like taunts.
This was most certainly not in the script. The dynamic of Celtic's wretched season had altered when Lennon took up the considerable slack Mowbray had left strewn behind him. The target of the supporters' anger, the ineffectual and sometimes deeply baffling Mowbray, had been removed and, with a doomed league campaign accepted by all but the most myopically-optimistic as lost, there was a sense that the tail-end of Celtic's season could only be an improvement on what had preceded it.
With the popular figure of Lennon promoted to the tiller, a listing ship was immediately steadied. What's more, with the Scottish Cup still up for grabs, and Rangers no longer a threat in that competition, the Lurgan man was presented with the perfect opportunity to salvage some pride in Celtic's season with the addition of silverware.
The prospect of Mowbray's reign stumbling on to the semi-final date at Hampden had been brought to a swift close following his last feeble stand at new St. Mirren Park. Lennon's two games in charge (wins against Kilmarnock and Hibernian) suggested an improvement and, with Robbie Keane rampant, a third straight victory for the interim manager against first division Ross County would mean a date back at the national stadium in May. Things could only get better.
Ross County's spirited refusal to read the script and bow down to the Glasgow giants means that, for Celtic, the season has sunk yet another level in what has been a Dante-esque descent of misery. Instead, Derek Adams' Highlands minnows will be the ones stepping out in the Hampden sun once more with Europe now beckoning for the Dingwall side. Celtic's scalp now rests beside that of Hibs in Adams' belt.
The eagerness and competitive thrust of County gave them an immediate and decisive advantage over a Celtic side who looked jaded. lethargic and uninterested from the start. Lennon had been expected to instil some fight into this Celtic team but County's performance simply illuminated what has been most absent from Celtic all season. They were cohesive, worked tirelessly as a unit and were first to the tackle. In short, they wanted to win. When presented with opportunities, they mercilessly exploited the defensive frailties that have been the unwanted hallmark of Celtic's season.
Steven Craig's marvellous individual goal saw him advance unhindered through the heart of the Celtic backline (where Josh Thompson was repeatedly exposed all afternoon)before beating Lukasz Zaluska. Martin Scott's late second merely underlined County's wholesale authority. In midfield, Richard Brittain was dominant for the highlanders as Scott Brown once more failed to justify his record-breaking transfer fee. Landry N'Guemo didn't even make half-time, Lennon taking the somewhat surprising decision to hook him before the interval.
Celtic were well beaten in every department and the agonies of this season are not yet over for their fans. Rangers, champions in all but name, travel to Parkhead for the final Old Firm game and Walter Smith's side will be keen to shovel salt onto gaping wounds. Lennon may now have a fight on his hands to ensure second place does not slip from the grasp of this demoralised band.
An analysis of the wreckage of Celtic's season can now be squarely made. A barren season is always a disaster for either of the Old Firm and this campaign will go down as one of the worst in the club's history. For Celtic to have performed so poorly after spending many times more on players than the rest of the SPL clubs combined is inexcusable.
The colossal error of judgement that saw the manager of the team who finished bottom of the English Premier League deemed suitable to take charge at Parkhead means the Celtic board must shoulder the burden of responsibility. Mowbray's appointment amid much fanfare about expansive football has been exposed as rank folly.
His signings - Landry N'Guemo apart - have not performed. The decision to lavish such a large chunk of the budget on the limited goalscoring abilities of Marc-Antoine Fortune (who showed all the interest of a schoolboy on a particularly unengaging day during the Ross County game) is the most glaring example of Mowbray's lack of market acumen.
The one bright point at the centre of the bewildering flow of traffic Mowbray conducted to and from the club in January was Robbie Keane but, despite the Irishman's pre-match equivocation on Saturday, he will surely not be remaining in Glasgow beyond the final league game. When Keane departs, Celtic will be losing their one outstandingly consistent performer.
Lennon attempted to distance himself from his side with some excoriating post-match comments regarding his side's "hunger and desire". His remarks were the first of what is sure to be an avalanche of opprobrium to be heaped on this team by Celtic supporters (of which Lennon is one) although the interim-manager cannot swerve totally his share of the responsibility for such a limp Scottish Cup exit with motivation so clearly lacking in his side. "If I'm not here next season I'm pretty sure some of them won't be here either", Lennon snarled.
One issue that the result surely now resolves is that of whether Lennon will succeed Mowbray as the full-time manager. Had he won the cup and secured second place in the league there would have been a groundswell of support for his claims on the job. Lennon's fate has now surely been decided and the board must know begin the search elsewhere for what will be a crucial appointment.
Whoever steps into the managerial role, Lennon is correct to state that "major surgery" is required on a team that is deficient in every outfield department. The new man will need healing hands to arrest what has the appearance of terminal decline in the east end of Glasgow.