The Lenny Conundrum: Celtic’s Once and Future Manager?
With the end of the season rapidly approaching, Celtic seem to be engulfed in a flurry of speculation regarding who will manage the team after the summer. Some of the names that have been linked to the Celtic job in recent weeks are some of the biggest names in world football – prompting fervent debate amongst the fans as to who the best candidate for the job is.
The list of names below are those which the bookies have touted as the most likely candidates for the job – and they include within their ranks some of the greats of European football, and one or two who have fallen from grace in recent years. Whoever is to take over at the end of the season – be that Neil Lennon or someone else – the rebuilding job that is to come will be an incredible undertaking, and will require someone at the top of their game to get the job done.
Seen by many as the ‘default’ option in the race to be Celtic’s next permanent manager, Neil Lennon is the clear favourite for the job. There’s no denying Lennon’s commitment to Celtic. Having grown up a Celtic fan, played for the club, and now managed the team over two spells – Lennon is in a better position than most to take Celtic into next season. As for the manner in which he has worked since being appointed interim manager, Lennon has conducted himself incredibly professionally under what is clearly not the best of situations to be in. At the end of the day, when it comes to experience at Celtic, there aren’t many that are as well equipped to take on the managerial role than Neil Lennon – but just because he’s already got his stuff moved into the office doesn’t mean he’s the best man for the job.
Amongst the Celtic support, criticism of Lennon has become commonplace since he has come back to the club. Despite having wrapped up the league title, and made it comfortably to the Scottish Cup final, Celtic’s results have been unispiring at times. Under his stewardship Celtic have had to rely on last-gasp winners away at last place Dundee and Craig Levein’s Hearts. Certain sections of the support are very vocal about their frustration around these performances and the results they bring, being wholly not good enough – and they hold Lennon responsible for this. In some positions on the park personnel changes from game to game, suggesting Lennon either doesn’t have faith in some of the players that played significant roles under Rodgers, or that the players don’t have faith in him as their manager – and as such are unwilling to work to stay in the team.
That being said, there is one glaring argument for Lenny’s stewardship to continue; that being his record by the numbers. Since returning to the job following Rodgers’ departure in February, Neil Lennon’s Celtic have only lost one game in all domestic competition. Under his tenure Celtic have conceded only 5 goals in the league – bolstered by the incredible form of Lennon’s preferred centre-back pairing of Ajer and Šimunović. At critical points of the season, Lennon’s sides have performed extremely well – with two 3-0 performances against Aberdeen in key games, and a crucial 2-1 win over Rangers at Parkhead. It’s not much of a surprise that many in the Celtic support feel this month’s loss to Rangers has severely hampered both his chances of getting the job and his desirability as Celtic’s future manager – but there’s still an argument to be made for his permanent appointment to the position.
Lennon’s qualities as a manager and a servant to the club are unquestionable, and if he’s appointed on a permanent contract come the end of the season then the Celtic support will undoubtedly back him – but if the board do decide to go elsewhere to find the Hoops’ next manager there are a few routes that they are likely to go down.
Over the past few weeks there has been heavy speculation in the press that an offer has been made by the Celtic board to former Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Chelsea boss, José Mourinho. Following a report by Gianluca Di Marzio, a respected sports journalist in Italy, social media has been awash with speculation over Mourinho’s suitability for the Celtic job – and whether or not he would want to manage at Parkhead in the first place. As with any of the prospective managers on this list the selling points are clear; the opportunity to work at one of Europe’s biggest and most widely supported clubs, the possibility of European football every season, and now the chance to write themselves into the club’s history for all time by securing league success. Celtic’s next manager, likely to take the club on for at least the next two years, will have the opportunity to write themselves into the history books – not only of Celtic, but of the whole of European football – by winning the fabled ten-in-a-row. For any manager this would be a huge selling point – and for Mourinho it would be no different. Mourinho’s interest in the Parkhead job, as suggested by Di Marzio, is corroborated by an ACSOM source who has confirmed that Mourinho has met with club officials at least twice in the recent past regarding the vacancy at Celtic Park. So if there’s a deal on the table and José is keen, how would he fare at the helm?
If the Celtic board were to get Mourinho on the books there would undoubtedly be a few issues that would arise. Historically, Mourinho’s teams have played a defensive brand of football that has been branded ‘negative’ by opposition managers and unhappy fans alike, with the eeking-out of results prioritised over entertaining football. Over the years Celtic’s style of play has been exactly the opposite of this. The Celtic support have become accustomed to their team playing exciting, fast paced, attacking football, which has the entertainment of the fans at its core. This clash of ideology between manager and club could be a potential issue if José were to get the job, however, come next season – with the only real demand of any manager being to win the ninth, and possible tenth league titles in a row – the expectations of this style of play could be put to one side in favour of guaranteed league success.
Despite criticisms of the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’, Mourinho’s trophy haul over his career is the real measure of his incredible managerial pedigree. His trophy cabinet boasts two Champions Leagues and UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues a piece, and league titles in every country he has managed in, as well as countless cup wins across Europe. Mourinho’s success and notoriety in European football are enough to put him amongst the greatest managers to work in the modern game. The signing of Rodgers was a huge coup for the Celtic board at the time, but given his reputation and illustrious past, the signing of Mourinho would blow the signing of Rodgers out the water. There aren’t many managers of Mourinho’s stature on the planet today, and the capture of his signature would be unprecedented in the history of Celtic and of the whole of Scottish football. I think it’s a given that if it’s at all possible for the board to get Mourinho to Celtic Park then they should do so.
Rafael Benítez is another manager of incredible pedigree in Europe, if slightly less celebrated than José Mourinho. Over his storied career Rafa has won silverware in Italy with Napoli and Inter Milan, league titles in Spain with Valencia, and won the Champions League and Europa League with Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. However in recent years, having been appointed to manage of some of the biggest clubs in Europe, Rafa has broadly performed worse than expected. During his last season at Napoli, Benítez struggled to keep the team in the Champions League places, and eventually lost out to Lazio on the last day of the season. At Real Madrid, Rafa’s contract was cancelled after a trophy-less seven month stint which saw Benítez fall out of favour with the fans, and Madrid crash out of the Copa Del Rey through disqualification for fielding an ineligible player. Following this, having been appointed manager at Newcastle United to save them from relegation, Benítez failed to do so – although he guided the team back to the Premier League after winning the Championship the following year.
Benítez is currently still under contract at Newcastle United, where he guided the team to a 10th place finish in the Premier League last year, and secured a 13th position finish in the league on Sunday. Benítez’s contract is up with the Magpies come the end of June, which seems to be the reason that speculation has arisen surrounding his interest in the Celtic job. A manager of his stature coming to Celtic would be a great signing for the Celtic board, but the Newcastle United fans seem incredibly keen on keeping him in his job while a new owner is sought – and according to reports, he is likely to sign a new deal in the coming weeks.
Having shown for the past three seasons that he is able to work in less than ideal conditions at Newcastle, it’s clear Rafa would be able to handle anything that would come his way as Celtic manager – and that the Celtic job would potentially be a much more attractive job for the Spaniard than his current position. If he is available to them come the end of his contract with Newcastle United, then the board could do worse than signing Benítez as the next Celtic manager.
Roberto Martínez is another manager that has been linked to the Celtic job in recent weeks. The former Everton and Wigan manager is currently experiencing the greatest spell of his managerial career to date as manager of the Belgian national team. Under his stewardship, Belgium have experienced the best form in their history, finishing last year’s World Cup in third place. Martínez’s side have the benefit of having some of the world’s greatest players amongst their ranks – such as Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Brunye, and Celtic’s very own Dedryck Boyata – but Martínez has managed to get the very very best out of them.
Rumours of Martínez’s interest in the Celtic seem to have arisen from circumstances in the Spaniard’s personal life. Martínez’s wife is Scottish, having met the footballer while he was playing for Motherwell in 2002. There has been a significant amount of speculation in the Scottish press regarding Martínez’s wife, suggesting that she is homesick and considering moving back to Scotland. These rumours have been rubbished by the Spaniard’s agent, who claims Martínez has no interest in taking the Celtic job, suggesting that the link to the role has only arisen due to Martínez having a Scottish wife, and that he is happy in his position with Belgium. All in all, if he was to take the job, however unlikely that may be, Martínez would be a great appointment for Celtic.
Moyes’s name is one that seems to be perpetually linked with the managerial position at Celtic Park. Having played for Celtic in his youth in the 1980s, and having grown up supporting the team, Moyes was bound to be linked with a move to Parkhead. This isn’t helped by comments that Moyes has made in the past, making it clear that he has an interest in taking on the Celtic job in the future.
Perhaps if Moyes had been interested in the job earlier on in his career then he may have stood a better chance of being appointed. His eleven year stint at Everton between 2002 and 2013 is one that is much celebrated in the club’s history, and is where the bulk of his managerial prestige came from. Moyes took Everton from near-relegation to Champions League football in three seasons, winning a slew of managerial awards along the way. His record at Everton was enough to get him the Manchester United job in 2013, where he was successor to Alex Ferguson. This is were things started to go downhill. After a disappointing ten month reign at United, Moyes experienced what was to become his first of two sackings in as many years. Bad seasons at Real Sociedad and West Ham United followed, as did relegation with Sunderland in 2017. After this succession of disastrous jobs, Moyes’ stock as a manager is possibly the lowest it has ever been, and it is clear why so many are apprehensive about his potential management of Celtic.
As it stands the Celtic support are not enthused by the potential appointment of Moyes at all. Moyes was spotted in the stands at Celtic Park during the recent match against Kilmarnock by the television cameras, and in the following moments social media was awash with an outpouring of concern that Moyes may be in the running for the Celtic job. In my opinion, considering his record since leaving Everton in 2013, the Celtic board would be wrong to appoint Moyes as the man to lead us towards ten-in-a-row, and as such I think he is the least desirable candidate on this list.
One of the most incredible stories in Scottish football in recent years has been the drastic and meteoric rise of Kilmarnock – and at the centre of this success is manager Steve Clarke. In October 2017 Kilmarnock were languishing in last place in the premiership, and had just shown manager Lee McCulloch the door. Enter Steve Clarke. By the end of that season, Clarke would guide Kilmarnock to a fifth place finish, and their highest points tally in years. Approaching the end of the current season, it seems increasingly likely that Kilmarnock will finish the season with European qualifiers in the summer – a remarkable turnaround by any measure.
As far as his previous record is concerned, the former Scotland international has worked as an understudy for José Mourinho at Chelsea and as first team coach under Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool; playing a part in trophy winning seasons at both clubs. Since returning to Scottish football with Kilmarnock, Clarke has been linked with managerial vacancies at both Glasgow clubs, as well as the Scotland job on two separate occasions. Clarke’s stock has never been higher and his suitability for the job, should he want it, is plain to see.
Despite this, it is unlikely that Clarke could be tempted by the job. As manager of Kilmarnock, Clarke was the victim of sectarian abuse from the Rangers support at a game at Ibrox in February. Clarke has been very vocal in the press since this incident – utterly condemning sectarian abuse in the West of Scotland, and noting that the prevalence of sectarianism may have dissuaded him from taking a up a position at any other Scottish club in the future. Another potential roadblock to getting Clarke to Celtic could possibly be his family situation. Clarke’s wife, children, and grandchildren all live in England – making it likely that his next move may be to a club down south, rather than up the M77 to Glasgow. This combination of his experiences as Kilmarnock manager and his family situation make it clear that Clarke may not be as keen to take on the Celtic job as many would have hoped.
Steve Clarke is one of the highest rated managers to ply his trade in Scotland in recent years and if the Celtic board decide that he is the right man for the job then they would do well to attract his signature, however unlikely that may be.
The Lenny Conundrum
As we have seen, most of the names linked to the Celtic job would prove fantastic appointments. If the bookies and the press are to be believed, the Celtic job is one of the most attractive in world football at the moment – and some of the world’s greatest managers are lining up to take over after the summer. With such an illustrious list of names supposedly ready to take over, it’s now up to the board to decide whether to get someone else in, or to offer Lennon a new deal.
So the conundrum for the board is this:
Has Neil Lennon, in the short time he has been here, done enough to win the support of the Celtic fans, and if so does he have the qualities to take the club forwards?
Would it be right not to renew the contract of a manager who could end the season bringing a domestic treble back to Celtic Park?
Have the performances that the team put in under his stewardship been good enough to inspire hopes of ten-in-a-row, or do they serve as a warning for what is to come if we don’t appoint someone else?
Only time will tell what their answer is.
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