Desmond Kane

Lennon must make sense of Black Wednesday

Desmond Kane

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The competition is not yet over, but the inquest has already
begun. Impoverished playing surfaces, former Rangers players in management, dodgy
referees, the Scottish Premier League fixture list, zonal marking and an inexperienced coach will be projected as reasons why Celtic managed to squander the championship after holding a winning hand. Take your pick, but none of the above have
any real credibility.

Whatever is dreamt up by an assortment of wounded supporters can be dismissed when analysing the gruesome images of Celtic's 3-2 defeat in
Inverness on Wednesday night. An unfortunate loss can be tolerated, but there
are no excuses for the nature of such a defeat. There is no real hiding place
for the players who managed to come up woefully short in the moment of truth.

If Terry Butcher's bustling Inverness side had won 6-1 or
6-2, it would not have flattered them. This remains a club that have pestered Celtic for several years
having ousted them from the Scottish Cup in 1999 and 2003. Such a pattern has nothing
to do with Butcher, a former Rangers captain, demanding extra motivation from
his players. Having dealt with Butcher over the years, one can testify
that all he will have demanded from his side is pride in performance. This is
something that Celtic could not give their manager Neil Lennon.

As Butcher said afterwards, he does not care who snares the
league. His only concern is Inverness, where he is evidently doing a
sterling job. The same goes for Stuart McCall. He is a former Rangers
player running Motherwell, but to suggest he would have encouraged his side to
succumb to a 5-0 stuffing to Rangers on Saturday is questioning the character of the man. 

McCall described the 5-0 loss as "embarrassing".
A bit like Celtic's mugging in Inverness. A gloriously shiny evening brought
only darkness to the travelling hordes. They began the night in sunshine, and finished
it drenched in disbelief.  If Celtic lose
the league, this will be remembered as their 'Black Wednesday'.    

Celtic knew what was at stake in the capital of the Highlands. They knew what they would face. This is what will hurt Lennon when he
sifts through the wreckage of such a fatal loss. A win would have enabled Celtic to
go top by two points. A draw would have enabled them to assume first place from Rangers on
goal difference. In the end, they were worthy of nothing. Not even the penalty
that may have rescued an unlikely draw in the dying seconds when Paddy McCourt
charged into Grant Munro.

The pitch at Inverness may have been sticky and sluggish,
but no more stagnant than the visiting side. The reason why Celtic have managed to vandalise their
ambitions of a first championship since 2008 is a startling
failure to address the dangers that have lurked in their defence for several
seasons. This harks back to a time when Martin O'Neill ran the team a decade
ago.

Celtic have failed to unearth a couple of hardy and reliable
defenders since the club's assistant manager Johan Mjallby and Dianbobe Balde were at the heart of the defence during a run to the UEFA Cup final in 2003. Mjallby and Balde were not God's gift to the 'Catenaccio'
concept, but compared to some of the figures found there
in recent times, they at least accepted a sense of responsibility.

Scottish football remains a forum that gives scant reward to
those of a faint heart. If you fail to win the battle, you are always at risk
at unforgiving outposts such as Inverness. Daniel Majstorovic and Charlie Mulgrew were belittled by a lone striker in Adam Rooney. What would have happened if
Richie Foran was not suspended?

A number of Celtic followers remain unhappy about the way in
which Balde was cast aside, apparently for being handed a heaving new contract
under O'Neill. He is young enough to still be playing for Celtic. He never let
the club down, even when appearing fleetingly in the latter days of his career in Scotland.

Stephen McManus, Gary Caldwell, Darren O'Dea, Thomas Rogne,
Jos Hooiveld, Glenn Loovens, Josh Thompson, Majstorovic and Mulgrew have all
been tried at the heart of Celtic's defence since O'Neill left. All have been
found wanting.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Celtic have
conceded only 22 goals in the SPL, but this belies the shakiness of their back
line. The championship was not lost this week. Celtic led Inverness 2-0 at home
in December, but ended up drawing 2-2. A week earlier they led Dundee United
1-0, but conceded a free header in stoppage time in a 1-1 draw.

If there is guidance about what is needed, Celtic need only
look across Glasgow to see David Weir, 40, doing a heroic job for Rangers. His age is held up as a factor, but he remains streetwise in handling the demands of the SPL, because he reads the game well. Centre-halfs do not need pace if they spot danger before it happens.  

Lennon knows the business
he is in. One minute you are held up as a prince, the next you are a pauper. Setting aside the much-publicised travails in his daily
living in Glasgow - and these remain quite steep problems - there are those who will
want Lennon out of the door if he lifts the Scottish Cup, but fails to bring home the title. They are not studying
the bigger picture.

Rangers have enjoyed a settled side for several seasons.
Under Walter Smith, they were hardly going to slip quietly into the night.
Injuries have not decimated the backbone of a slimline squad sufficiently
enough to derail their pursuit of a third successive championship. Lennon has numbers, but has not attracted sufficient expertise. 

Lennon inherited a rotten side from Tony Mowbray over a year
ago. He has improved it immeasurably, but Celtic are invariably a series of
inexperienced players trying to get a man's job done. Majstorovic was the only thirtysomething to face Inverness. That they could not stand
up to the pressure of going top as the embers of the season begin to fizzle out
suggests Lennon must seek out more seasoned faces. 

There is no point in sacking managers year in, year out
because of failure to deliver the league flag. The mindset at Barcelona or Real Madrid is
not applicable in Scotland, where copious amounts of money are no longer frittered away on
players.

Of course, it is not yet over, but it would take a severe
onset of the jitters for Rangers to fail now with home matches against Hearts
and Dundee United, and a visit to Kilmarnock to see out. To a lesser extent, Celtic are a bit like Arsenal in England.
They try to play pretty football and have goals in them, but remain suspect at the
back. They also lack leadership when times are tough.

The 3-0 defeat at Sporting Braga in a Champions League
qualifier and a 4-0 thumping by FC Utrecht in a Europa League qualifier could
be justified because of the newness of the team. A similar output some nine
months on cannot. Celtic looked like they were playing together for the first
time in Inverness. This was no David slashing Goliath.
That would be an insult to David and Goliath. 

Celtic need to win their final three games and hope that
Rangers drop points. There is as much chance of Celtic haemorrhaging more
points and Rangers winning their final three games. Whatever unravels against Kilmarnock, Hearts and Motherwell in the next week or so, Lennon should
not be made the scapegoat for failing to seal the deal.

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