hat the recent scenes at Celtic Park might have been like had supporters been allowed into the stadium, we have been left to ponder. As an unruly element wasted valuable police resources, mid-pandemic, with protests after last Sunday’s defeat by Ross County, it was easy to think Celtic’s players had got off lightly.
Tens of thousands have not been allowed to howl disapproval during defeat to Rangers, embarrassment at the hands of Sparta Prague or a League Cup exit to a club with one-20th of Celtic’s wage bill.
It would be unfair to depict last weekend’s baying mob as representative of Celtic’s supporters. Concern at a run of two wins in 11 games is well founded. By Monday evening, BBC Scotland had given airtime to two Celtic podcasters who were perfectly articulate and reasoned about their stance.
They contested that Neil Lennon should no longer lead this team. It would be ludicrous to have any debate regarding Celtic’s recent on-field turmoil without focus on the manager, which Lennon himself will appreciate. There is, however, hilarity due when people speak of “respect” for an individual they are hoping will be put out of a job.
Celtic find themselves in curious territory. It would be incredible if Lennon, despite an association with the club dating back to 2000, can disperse the disquiet swirling around him. At times it has been toxic. Any stumble against St Johnstone on Sunday would surely force the Celtic board to at least be seen as trying to halt the tailspin.
It may be easy to portray football as a break from Covid-19 restrictions that have limited everyone’s life for the past nine months but watching those fans brawl – and more – outside Celtic Park, it was easy to infer wider issues were at play.
Likewise with social media, never the tamest of environments but home to some incredible – and incredibly disrespectful – abuse towards Lennon. People have time on their hands, frustrations are intensified by living criteria, hence football woes – trivial in the grand scheme of life – are amplified.
Celtic’s followers, not uniquely, paid premium season-ticket prices for a streaming code. If the blame for that cannot reasonably be laid at the club’s door – not entirely, anyway, given Scottish football’s appalling misjudgment of when crowds may be allowed back in stadiums – it merely adds to rumblings of discontent.
Celtic will soon seek season-ticket renewals for 2021-22; if the loyalty of supporters should not be questioned, the club does not have long to change the mood music. Perhaps the public will simply be desperate to return to football in normal fashion, but if ever there was a time to keep punters onside – as glances at balance sheet show – it is now.
Celtic’s main shareholder, Dermot Desmond, did not accumulate more money than royalty through pig-headedness. For all Desmond will never be seen to act on protest – not least at a ground he rarely visits – there are other reasons for keeping Lennon in office.
The first relates to high respect and past managerial record. Yet Celtic are also perilously short on alternatives. Why would any manager of substance look to enter a fray where Rangers are odds-on to win a first title since 2011?
In the summer, with a little space to breathe, Celtic’s overall situation may be altogether different. For now, this is a club with disconnects between the fans and the board, the fans and the team and even among certain players within the dressing room. It isn’t really a great sell.
Back-of-the-fag-packet calculations suggest Celtic have spent £20m in 2020 on dismal recruitment, including expensive loans for Shane Duffy and Diego Laxalt. There surely cannot be a legitimate claim that this board have not backed their manager. More pertinent is the underperforming process which leads Celtic towards a string of multimillion-pound deals for players not worthy of regular starting spots.
On Thursday in Milan, Lennon really had no alternative other than to talk up publicly a squad he has to rely on for must-win league matches and a pre-Christmas Scottish Cup final. Such praise may not suit the masses but it is a time-honoured managerial tactic.
The problem for Lennon and Celtic is that every utterance or move triggers hostility. We didn’t particularly need last weekend’s demonstration to realise that much.