WITH Neil Lennon’s departure Celtic have lost their public face and a galvanising personality who has strengthened the narrative of the club perhaps more than any other figure in the modern era.
A corroding malaise had set in after the disastrous signing of Tony Mowbray and legitimate questions were being asked of a dispassionate side who seemed to care little for positive results, fans or the club.
As a former key player under Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan, Lennon revealed a ravenous appetite to take on the role of Celtic manager and created an authentic positive space for dialogue between fans and the club.
He questioned the mentality of players, made a contribution toward the social and cultural issues that mattered in the lives of Celtic fans and was open about a battle with depression – a significant and courageous move which for many helped remove the stigma of talking about a mental health condition.
To a new generation he became the modern-day Mr Celtic, flags and banners adorned his image with the words “Celtic to the core” and “We stand behind our leader”. The poster-boy wasn’t a star striker or the team captain – it has remained Neil Lennon.
Historically his era will be discussed, debated and written about for many years to come as it has left many questions about the state of Scottish society. The battles he fought and won – without the help of the Scottish authorities – against the bigots has strengthened the folklore around Celtic.
He will be remembered as the Hoops manager who stood up to death-threats, bullets, bombs, public attacks and low-life internet hatred. These facts have been wretchedly watered down in the Scottish media over the last week.
So when a manager of Neil Lennon’s ilk leaves a global institution like Celtic what does it say about the ambition and future of the club, particularly if that manager goes to a provincial English team?
Former Celtic employee and Alternative View editor Matt McGlone has pointed to a fractious relationship with Peter Lawwell for some time, he said: “When you have a dyed-in-the-wool Celtic man like Lennon walk out of a job with no job to go to there are some very serious questions to be asked in Celtic’s direction. Neil has said for some time that Celtic is a big club to walk away from, now he has done it.
“The way this story has come out-my feeling is that he was pushed, it took Celtic five hours to respond the news he had left. The negotiated settlement included silence clauses; that’s strange because the official statement said ‘by mutual agreement’”.
Neil Lennon has admitted that he’s considered leaving Celtic for over two years, at the same time he has described it as one of the most difficult decisions of his life. There is a sense that he never recovered from losing key players such as Wanyama and Hooper in the aftermath of a successful 2012/13 Champions League campaign.
Those players were never adequately replaced and the profits weren’t re-invested to an acceptable level. While names such as David Moyes, Owen Coyle, Henrik Larsson and Roy Keane are being touted for the position, McGlone believes the real question should be who could cope with the same diminished powers as Lennon.
“The simple answer would be Henrik Larsson because he would get bums on seats but that would be a recipe for disaster, the question is, who would put up with the restrictions that Lennon has tolerated?
“He took on the role with diluted power and he never escaped that in the four years he was there. Peter Lawwell’s budgets are decided by Dermot Desmond, an aloof figure who doesn’t go to the AGM meetings to address fans. He turns up at Parkhead with his Formula One racing and showbiz pals, he wouldn’t necessarily lend Celtic money, although he has done in the past.
“[Like Lennon] the manager would have to work within the football department where every Celtic player is for sale and the manager is always expected to do well in the Champions League, it’s taken for granted that you will win the league; what kind of manager wants to deal with that structure?”
It would undoubtedly stick in the craw if a new manager was allowed a decent budget after letting the successful partnership of Lennon and Mjallby leave the club without jobs to go to.
McGlone himself is known for his part in squaring up to an outdated board who were sending Celtic to the grave, today he is honoured at the gates of Parkhead in the form of a plaque which pays tribute to “Celts for Change”, the pressure group he fronted over 20 years ago before being employed by the club. Today he believes Celtic face a different challenge.
“I think the club is in danger of losing its soul, Neil Lennon provided an emotional link between the board and supporters, whatever we were going through, the manager was visibly going through it with you.
“The club are heading toward a seismic shift, at present there is a corporate ice-cap over Celtic Park – the board need to understand the views and needs of supporters, they must realise they are running a big business that is based on emotion.
"I would imagine many fans will not renew [season books] this year, Neil wasn’t 100 percent popular, there are some pleased to see him go but there are more fans likely not to renew season books.”
McGlone’s point is a valid one, Celtic will have to think hard about a manager who has a strong ideological and cultural connection with the support. The notion that Celtic are “more than a club” has been questioned by many of late, particularly after a refusal to pay the living wage.
What isn’t under doubt is that Neil Lennon was more than a manager, his contribution to the health of Celtic, his relationship with the majority of fans and what he tolerated has cemented his place in the pantheon of Celtic greats.
An archetypal club hero, he has strengthened the symbols, character and importance of what it means to represent this most idiosyncratic football enterprise.