CELTIC may just have lost their third game against Rangers in a row and fallen 19 points behind the victors in the Premiership table, but Neil Lennon was far from despondent when he spoke in the aftermath of the Old Firm match at Ibrox at the start of the month.
“We looked assured, we looked strong, we were by far the dominant team,” said Lennon. “There is no doubt the sending off (centre half Nir Bitton received a straight red card in the second-half) had a huge impact. There is still a lot of football to be played. If we keep playing like that, we won’t have any problems at all.”
The encouraging display and the fact that his side – who had been on a six game winning run in the build-up to the Glasgow derby – had three games in hand against Aberdeen, St Mirren and Livingston to play as well as two more meetings with their city rivals gave the manager hope they could turn things around.
His optimism, though, was short-lived. The quadruple treble winners headed straight from Govan to Dubai for a warm weather training break. What happened next has been fairly well documented.
When the defending Scottish champions took to the field against Hibernian at Parkhead last Monday night they were – after no fewer than 13 players were forced to self-isolate as a result of the positive coronavirus test that Christopher Jullien had returned the previous day – missing a raft of key men.
Lennon, who was in quarantine himself and orchestrating proceedings from his home in the West End via Zoom calls and AirPods, had no specialist strikers available to him and was forced to hand young winger Cameron Harper his first team debut up front.
Not surprisingly, Hibs earned a 1-1 draw with a late leveller and two invaluable league points were dropped. It was a similar story on Saturday when Livingston were the visitors. The final scoreline was 0-0. The makeshift hosts were, as the old saying goes, lucky to get nil.
The likes of Kristoffer Ajer, Scott Brown, Ryan Christie, Odsonne Edouard, Mohammed Elyounoussi and Leigh Griffiths should be back for the rematch with Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Wednesday night.
But how will they perform on the artificial turf at a notoriously difficult venue after being confined to their homes for 10 days? It isn’t ideal preparation for a game at a ground they haven’t won at in 13 years.
The fury of the Celtic supporters has been mainly directed at their chief executive Peter Lawwell and major shareholder Dermot Desmond, who ultimately sanctioned the controversial and ill-advised trip to the United Arab Emirates, in recent days.
But when Celtic’s lengthy period of domestic dominance comes to an end in the coming weeks – as it, despite the 1-1 draw that Rangers were held to by Motherwell at Fir Park yesterday, inevitably will – then many fans will turn their attention towards Lennon once again and demand his sacking.
The Northern Irishman will be entitled to point to the devastating consequences of the Dubai jaunt and the considerable cost of the Hibs and Livingston games that followed it when they do.
He was certainly keen to go abroad. His charges were transformed last season after their traditional training camp, won 10 and drew one of their subsequent 11 league matches and completed Nine-In-A-Row. But the decision on whether it was safe and wise to embark on a 7,000 mile round trip as Covid-19 infection rates rose worldwide didn’t lie with him.
Those in the Celtic hierarchy who were dealing with the complexities of the coronavirus pandemic, not the coach, have to shoulder responsibility. They could and should have vetoed it. Why must the man in the dugout carry the can? His job is to pick the strongest starting XI, decide on the formation and win football matches.
If Celtic had been able to field their best team against Hibs and Livingston and had racked up two vctories they would be 17 points adrift of Rangers today with those three games in hand and two encounters with the leaders to go. You do the math. They would still need win all their remaining fixtures and rely on favours to prevail. But it would be a far from hopeless predicament.
There are those among the fanbase who will point to the Champions League exit to Ferencvaros, the first loss to Rangers, the Europa League maulings by Sparta Prague and the Betfred Cup humiliation at the hands of Ross County and suggest that change is required. However, there were mitigating circumstances behind those disappointments too.
The board gave Lennon two votes of confidence in December and kept faith in him after their festive fixtures. Will they do the same when their dream of making Scottish football history and completing 10-In-A-Row is over? It will be far harder for them to stand by their man despite the five trophies he has lifted since replacing Brendan Rodgers in 2019.
But the Dubai debacle should be taken into consideration when the time comes to review Neil Lennon’s future.