Stiliyan Petrov, the former Celtic midfielder, believes that the Parkhead side were right not to call time on Neil Lennon’s tenure at the club before Christmas, however he has accepted that change is now a matter of when rather than if.
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Celtic are currently 21 points off the pace of Rangers and with a squad that has 13 players self-isolating as well as Lennon and assistant John Kennedy, the game against an in-form Livingston side this weekend will be viewed with some trepidation. Indeed, such has been the kamikaze nature of the defending this term that all games have come with a sense of anxiety given the propensity to gift cheap goals.
The circus around the club was exacerbated by the draw against Hibs on Monday night with one of the accusations towards the board from the club support being that they sat on their hands too long during a dismal opening half of the season.
“To be honest, it was the right thing to do to wait and not make a decision before Christmas,” said Petrov. “There was still the game against Rangers to play and there was the chance of a quadruple Treble. With the games in hand and the trip to Ibrox, there was still a chance of reducing the points gap to make it plausible to fight for the title. I think Neil deserved that chance and had earned that bit of time.
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“I have always believed that managers deserve the opportunity to get it right and get to survive a period when results are not good. But ultimately anyone involved in football knows that everyone is judged on results and over the past few months the results haven’t been satisfactory for Celtic. When it gets to that stage then it becomes accepted that change is almost always coming. I think we can all say that the league has gone and the chance to win 10-in-a-row has gone given the way everything is standing now.”
Petrov’s inaugural season at Celtic was the ill-fated brief John Barnes chapter at the club. Barnes was sacked after an ignominious Scottish Cup defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and after a 20-game league run where Celtic had fallen 10 points behind Rangers. Lennon’s side have played the same number of games albeit three games fewer than the Ibrox side. The very real danger for Celtic now is that they risk a collapse that could bring humiliation in terms of the final league table. Celtic had intimated in January that Lennon would be given the duration of the campaign and whatever comes next in the long-term, for now he still somehow needs to get a reaction from his dressing room.
“It is a difficult time,” said Petrov. “I know from my own time when things were not going well and we had the police outside the ground and you can feel the anger. It gets very hard in the dressing room when you are in that kind of environment because it is not just about the football then.
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“It is about everything round about it too. It is about the fans, the results, the performances and with so many issues and so much noise you feel the fragility in the dressing room. You have players looking at one another and thinking where are we going? How do we get out of this? There are lots of doubts in everyone’s minds. That then makes it difficult to come together. “Mentally it is very challenging because the games are still coming. It is a tough situation when you feel like the league has gone away from you but as a footballer you still have professional pride.”
Celtic last felt compelled to act to ward off a Rangers resurgence when they brought Brendan Rodgers in to replace Ronny Deila after a Scottish Cup defeat to the Ibrox side. Whether the same resources are there for a manager of similar standing remains to be seen but Petrov believes the job requires a significant personality to assuage the wounds of this season.
“The big challenge going forward is changing the mentality now within the dressing room,” he said. “If the call is made to bring in a new manager then I think you can’t be rushed into it. It is a huge appointment because anyone who is going to the manager at Celtic needs to be a personality. They need to be a leader. To demand the best, to demand high standards and a certain philosophy. “Martin O’Neill came in and made an impact immediately after a season that had been full of anger and disappointment. He ticked all those boxes but he was also given the resources to make changes to the squad. The biggest change, though, was belief and mentality.
“There is a decision to be made now about the direction the club is going to take. The fans want to see some leadership and some common-sense. Dubai, in the middle of a pandemic when everyone is being asked to make sacrifices, was always going to be hard to convince people of. I know it was planned a few months in advance but by the time it came around the restrictions for everyone had changed. Footballers are seen as privileged at the best of times but when you are seen to have more freedom than anyone else, there is always going to be anger. It was the wrong decision to go.”