Last night, less than a minute after Jordi Alba put the ball into the net, and denied Celtic a well-deserved Champions League point in the Nou Camp, the cameras cut to Neil Lennon, stood on the touchline.
He was perfectly still, his expression almost unreadable. He is usually a vocal manager, one who paces restlessly, who leaps and jumps in enthusiasm when things are good, and gestures frantically when things are bad.
At that moment, all that was gone. It is impossible for us to know what was going through his mind, but we can imagine the emotions pain, frustration and anger. The pride which he spoke of in interviews afterwards, pride in his team, that would have come later.
It’s perhaps only today, after a night of reflection, a night of taking stock, that he will begin to feel proud of himself. And he should. Lennon has come so far it defies belief. Just over a year ago – 15 October was the anniversary – Neil was fearing for his job after a 3 – 3 draw at Kilmarnock, where his team had, quite literally, come back from the dead. Had Celtic lost a fourth goal that day, Lennon has said he would have considered his position.
He should consider it now. He should consider how far he has come, and what he has achieved, and he should consider just how far he may yet take this team.
Neil Lennon has arrived on the biggest stage in world football, and he has proven he belongs there. On that stage he will get more attention than he ever has, but for the right reasons, and the respect that goes with it. It’s not before time.
Neil Lennon has taken this great young Celtic side so far, so fast, that it’s incredible. This team is bursting with talent, from back to front. Yet all of it would be wasted if Lennon was not, himself, quickly learning the tactical skills needed for the top level. He is.
Yet Neil Lennon is cursed by one thing; in Scotland, he is not, right now, going to be judged against the other managers who do their jobs in the rarefied atmosphere he sampled, like fine wine, last night, and where he was not found wanting. As bizarre as it will seem to those who do not live here, in this land, Neil Lennon finds himself judged against a man who manages a team three full leagues below him, a man who’s own record is … terrible.
On Wednesday 2 March 2011, Neil Lennon was involved in a touchline altercation which got the whole of Scotland talking. Celtic had just beaten Rangers in the Scottish Cup, and the Ibrox club’s players, and management team, completely lost the plot at full time. Ally McCoist, then assistant manager of the Ibrox club. scuttled across to Lennon, appearing at first to shake his hand, and then leaned across and whispered something in his ear, something which incensed the Celtic boss. We know what happened next. McCoist hid behind the Rangers backroom team, as Lennon was calmed by his assistants, and for days it was all you read about in the papers.
The target of the press was Lennon, of course. No-one seemed to want, or need, to know what McCoist had said to him; that was irrelevant. Lennon was the bad guy. He had to be. This was more than a clash between two men in similar roles. This was Beauty versus The Beast. This was a media darling against a media target. There was only going to be one winner in the PR war which followed, and it was never going to be Neil Lennon.
Because Lennon has been the bad guy in the eyes of the Scottish press, and for a large, vocal and disturbed section of the public at large, for a long time. He has been in their crosshairs, on nearly a permanent basis, since the day and hour he got the manager’s job … in fact, from before then. When he was captain of Celtic he was the frequent target of abuse so horrendous his manager, Martin O’Neill, on another visit to the Nou Camp, branded it “sectarian and racist.”
Everything Lennon did, from the moment he took root in the office of Celtic manager, was subject to the sharpest scrutiny. He inherited a shambles, but that didn’t seem to matter. There would be no honeymoon for him, no free ride. Neil Lennon, more so than any manager in the recent history of the game here, was under pressure almost from the start. His temperament was questioned.
It was asked whether he could command a dressing room. His backroom team was as new to management as he was, and they were questioned too.
Above all, some asked, with a sneer, and a smirk, and a we-know-something-you-don’t-know manner, would he really be independent of Peter Lawwell and the board? Was he the cheap and easy option? Was he someone the head honchos had appointed because he was someone they could easily control?
Anyway, what business did Celtic have appointing a rookie in the first place? Some of the hacks were adamant in their view that a job the size of Celtic’s should not be going to someone so untried. They were, perhaps, blithely unaware that the biggest club in the world had appointed someone untested, and were reaping almost unbelievable rewards for their courage. In an article recently, Hugh Keevins was ridiculing Celtic’s earlier appointment of “the rookie” John Barnes, as proof that Kenny Dalglish had lost the plot by the time he returned to the club. Rookie managers are a disaster, this seems to say … except when they’re not.
This is typical of certain hacks, who seem to be able to rewrite chunks of history, forget other bits, and ignore even more, almost at will, if it supports whatever bizarre point they are making on a given day. Some of those saying what a mistake Lennon’s appointment was were actually touting Ally McCoist as the next big thing in management at the same time, apparently not seeing, or not caring, about the blatant double standard being liberally applied to their coverage.
Even more hilariously, some were touting the coming battle between the two men as one between “the games two biggest up and coming young coaches.”
McCoist took the first competitive game of his entire managerial career on 23 July 2011. He was 48 at the time. At the same age, Alex Ferguson had been a manager for a trophy laden 16 years. Neil Lennon is nine years McCoist’s junior, another fact often overlooked. McCoist’s managerial “career” has started very, very late in the day.
“Ah,” his media friends have said, “but McCoist learned the ropes under Walter Smith.” Indeed he did. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that McCoist knows everything there is to know about the Walter Smith Method. He has played, and worked, under the man for a large part of his career in the game.
It was only natural he’d have picked up some things along the way. The question is, could he apply what he had learned to the job? It’s a question no-one in the media bothered to ask, and they’re still not asking it.
At the same time, those tired hacks appeared to have forgotten that Lennon learned the trade under two of the greatest Celtic managers in the last 30 years; Martin O’Neill and then Gordon Strachan. At the same time, he had a front row seat as the ill-fated Tony Mowbray era began to fragment, and if the first two men taught him what he should do, Mowbray’s time in charge was an education in what not to do. Furthermore, anyone with a mind to argue the point, not that anyone in the Scottish press was, regarding leadership ability would have realised that being a title winning Celtic captain was a greater preparation for management than being captain on a Question of Sport.
McCoist has always led a charmed life when it’s come to his portrayal in the press. Lennon never has. McCoist has a huge number of friends in the media. It is difficult to believe the same about the man from Lurgan.
Let’s take just one example of their off-field behaviour.
Now, Neil Lennon is a model citizen, but in Scotland he has become the target of numerous physical assaults, and, of course, a bombing campaign. When was attacked in Glasgow’s Ashton Lane some years ago, the media seemed almost determined to pin the blame on Lennon himself, with more than one saying it happened because Lennon refused to “tone it down” and lower his profile. There was a perception that, by going out drinking, he had put himself in a position where these things could happen, an idea which is ludicrous, and suggests he ought to have made himself a prisoner in his own home because of his job. It didn’t matter that Lennon, himself, has always behaved in impeccable fashion when not standing on the touchline, where he lets his emotions move him, as the best and brightest managers in the game often do.
It was the same when he was a player, when the same press was hollering about his behaviour on the pitch, completely ignorant of an almost unblemished disciplinary record before he arrived in Scotland.
Despite this, his reputation in the media is that of an aggressive, arrogant man who’s behaviour, and general demeanour, “brings it all on himself” and has occasionally “brought shame to Celtic” and disgraced the captains and managers who went before him.
It is disreputable garbage, but dangerous garbage when one examines the things Lennon has had to endure. Who will dare suggest his portrayal in the media is not a big part of the off-field problems he’s had to contend with, which genuinely shame this country?
Ally McCoist, on the other hand, is the Cheeky Chappie, the friendly, open and generous man who is a model of good behaviour and never lets himself, or the club, down when out in public. Or so most in the media would have you believe. Can this be, I wonder, the same Alastair Murdoch McCoist who, on 5 December 1986, then aged 24, assaulted a 19 year old man in a well-publicised altercation in a chip shop? Can it be the same man who was convicted, and fined, by the courts, and by Rangers, as a result of that incident, in September the following year?
Well yes, but this is one of those things we don’t talk about here, that we don’t think about here, that the press is content to pretend didn’t happen. It was a long time ago, and people do mature, and change, over the course, but there are moments, and more of them lately, when he’s under pressure and something emerges in McCoist’s demeanour, something ugly, something without a name, and it is not reckless, because that implies a spur of the moment loss of control. It is deeper and darker than that. It is calculated.
McCoist is the man who demanded the names of an independent panel earlier this year, and by virtue of this he was responsible for those names appearing in the papers, and on several Rangers fan forums, where the lunatic fringe was only too happy to take the next obvious step. He claimed those names were being with-held, that they should be out there, that he was speaking up for transparency, and this account has never been properly questioned by a press who know full well the inconvenient truth; that officials at Rangers were already in possession of the information McCoist claimed was such a well-guarded secret. To all outward appearances, McCoist seemed to be whipping up the angry mob, a mob he later claimed “disgusted” him.
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His efforts to drag Celtic into the EBT scandal, by questioning the SPL and SFA for clearing Celtic over the Juninho case, was spiteful, petty and ridiculous, yet these pronouncements served a very clear dual purpose, in that they blew smoke away from Rangers, and also from his own performance in the role of club manager.
McCoist’s recent results – in Scotland’s bottom tier league – have made some Rangers fans, those who are not fooled by rhetoric and this “we don’t do walking away” nonsense, question his ability to do the job. The press is not asking him the searching questions they should be, but defending him instead, pointing out how much “pressure” he is under, and how tough it’s been to manage the club during a “year of turmoil.”
Has it been hard on McCoist? Well, yes, of course it has. Yet it is nothing on a year of bullets and bombs in the post.
There is no comparison between taking some barbs from the supporters and being attacked by one, in full view of the TV cameras, whilst standing in your own technical area, doing your job. Neil Lennon has had to move house several times, and now has a bodyguard who shadows him everywhere he goes. McCoist has no idea what pressure is. No other manager in the game has ever had stuff like this weighing on his mind as he tries to win football matches.
Neil Lennon is growing in stature, after leading the team to excellent performances in last year’s Europa League. Bad luck, and some bad defending, saw Celtic knocked out, but the overall displays brought a lot of credit to the team, and credibility with it.
One hack predicted the Europa League schedule would be a disaster (and wrote off Celtic’s title challenge that afternoon at Rugby Park), and has never admitted he got that wrong. It was in that competition, a match against Rennes at Celtic Park, where Neil Lennon’s team found its rhythm.
Europe has been the making of Lennon. I don’t think it is unreasonable to argue that McCoist’s form in the same arena has destroyed his pretentions of being successful at that level in the game. They were, and are, the stuff of fantasy.
In fact, I would go further and point out that it is Ally McCoist’s fault, as much as Craig Whyte’s, that they are in the dire position in which they find themselves. McCoist’s European reversals annihilated the former owners plans at a stroke, creating the multi-million pound black hole he then tried to fill with money due to Revenue and Customs.
The press doesn’t like to say it, and Rangers fans don’t like to face it, but the collapse of that club, and it’s fall into liquidation and death, can be traced, in a neat little line, directly to the door of Ally McCoist’s office. He has diverted attention from his failings with some well-chosen sound bites but that, in all likelihood, is the legacy he will leave behind him.
On that night in March last year, Neil Lennon reacted, and that reaction reinforced a media opinion which has been wholly one sided right from the start. When both managers were charged, and then went before the SFA panel, Lennon was banned for four games, and McCoist two, with the longer ban for the Celtic manager a consequence of it not being his first that year. It didn’t matter that the other “offences” he was charged with had made a mockery of the whole system; the portrayal of Lennon as a man “out of control” was pushed, and pushed hard, by a press who has never warmed to him the way they have long worshiped at the feet of “Ally.”
McCoist appealed his two match ban, and won. The Rangers players involved that night were also allowed to escape action in the end, leaving Lennon as the only “guilty” man left standing, a verdict which anyone who watched those events knows was a shameful indictment on the game.
The late Paul McBride QC described the verdict in a famous television interview as “dishonest and biased”, yet it was clear that day that McCoist, and Rangers, as well as Lennon’s army of media critics and haters, were laughing up their sleeves.
No-one is laughing now, least of all McCoist. Lennon is the title winning manager of a Champions League team which came within 30 seconds of getting a draw at a ground where the best teams in world football have come in recent years and been dismantled with routine ease. Last night his tactics were magnificent, and the team immense. What’s more, it is clear that he has at his disposal a team of great, great potential, and he is backed by a club hierarchy which is determined to keep the team together for years to come. At 41, the world is at his feet.
McCoist is the 50 year old rookie rooted in the lower leagues, facing a rebuilding job of immense proportions, without a guarantee of finances to do it, at a club still mired in scandal and disgrace and facing potential penalties of unquantifiable size. He faces a trip to Clyde at the weekend, with a team of journeymen and academy players who have yet to win an away match in Third Division football. They have already been knocked out of the lower league cup competition, after a cataclysmic defeat in front of their home fans, on another ghastly night the Rangers manager, and his media friends, dearly wish the rest of the world would forget.
Last night, after the awful late goal which denied Lennon, and Celtic, and Scottish football with them, a famous point in the toughest away venue in the global game, Neil Lennon would have been forgiven for feeling frustrated, and a little angry, with his players. But today, when he pauses to think about that, his heart will swell and it will all become clear; frustration at not finishing the job away, at Barcelona? It is a wow moment, a little breath-taking when thought about with detachment. This is who he is now. This is where he and this team of his belongs.
Ally McCoist faces a three year climb just to reach the SPL. European football of any kind, far less an occasion as glittering as the one we just saw, is only a distant dream. There is nothing in his “career” as a manager so far to suggest he will even be in charge of the club when next they play a match in Scotland’s top division. It is almost impossible to imagine that he will ever lead a team onto the stage where last night Lennon looked right at home.
It is unfair to judge these two men against one another. The media is doing McCoist no favours when it tries to. They are on different footballing planets, and when it comes to natural ability Lennon is in a whole other class, along with his team.
The saying goes, “He laughs longest, he who laughs last.”
Today, Neil Lennon is entitled to chuckle a little. He is on the verge of something truly special, and everyone in European football can see it.
For those, here, who hate him, that must be hard to take.
For the rest of us, it is a pleasure to see him doing so well.
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