The feeding frenzy around Celtic is such that every high-profile manager out of work is linked with a job held by Neil Lennon. There is no suggestion Eddie Howe, Rafael Benítez or Frank Lampard will beat a path to Celtic Park – albeit speculation surrounding the former Bournemouth manager carries slightly more weight – but the fragility of Lennon’s position is emphasised by rumour. There is also audible hope from a section of disgruntled supporters.
With Celtic a distant second and set to concede their domestic title to Rangers, the club’s board issued a December statement which claimed the coaching staff’s “progress will be reviewed in the new year”. The expectation is Lennon will depart at the season’s end, most likely in tune with a widespread overhaul, with Celtic seemingly determined not to part with their former captain before that point. In the meantime, the team have won only eight games from 22 and none of their past four.
Lennon, though, denies he has a sense of swinging in the wind. “No, absolutely not,” he said. “I think I’ve had some great support from the board. I can’t control speculation or fake news, fake stories. That’s the way the world is now.
“I’m very comfortable with what I’m doing and I have great support from the board, Peter Lawwell [the chief executive] and also my backroom team. So, no, I don’t feel isolated in any way, shape or form. I’m not happy with the way the season’s gone so far but I’m very comfortable with my role and pretty determined we get the best out of the rest of the season.”
Quite how it has come to this for Celtic, who were untouchable domestically pre-lockdown, could be a useful subject for a university thesis. Recruitment has clearly failed – and at the cost of millions of pounds – but Lennon has made regular reference to his squad’s inability to thrive in spectator-free stadiums. He nodded in agreement on Tuesday when Liverpool’s recent struggles were likened to events in Glasgow’s green half.
“I think that is a fair comparison,” he said. “I’m watching with interest how Liverpool are going. There is a 30-point swing between them and Manchester United from this time last year. Now that’s not normal; it’s just not normal. United have improved but not to the extent of it being a 30-point swing. Liverpool are probably finding things a little bit difficult the way we have, for some reason. It’s difficult to put your finger on it.
“Listen, I would not have enjoyed playing this season. As a player, with what I experienced at Celtic, or even Leicester in the Premier League, I would not have enjoyed it. You thrive on the atmosphere. It brings the best out in you. We talked for years of the European nights at Celtic Park where it lifted us to another level. The players have been bereft of that. I’m not using that as an excuse. It’s part of the explanation, it’s not the total explanation. But I think it is a part of it that there has been a flatness about it and that comes from the lack of energy, atmosphere, rawness that normally the players would pick up on, thrive on.”
Celtic will host Hamilton on Wednesday without Jeremie Frimpong, who has been in Germany finalising a £10m move to Bayer Leverkusen. The 20-year-old Dutchman had made clear his desire to leave Celtic, which seemed to irk Lennon.
“It’s difficult when it’s a player you’ve helped to develop,” said Lennon. “You’re sorry to see him go but he didn’t want to stay and progress here. There was a determination about him to go so we took our decision.
“I feel a bit let down because we felt we could progress him further. We offered him a new deal which would have kept him here for another two or three years but it was down to the player’s personal ambition. Whether that’s the right way for him remains to be seen. From a business point of view and maybe from a footballing point of view as well, when a player’s mind is set like that it’s very difficult to bring him back round.”