Graeme McGarry: Can Neil Lennon do a Steven Gerrard and fight his way back into affections of his club’s supporters?

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A year is a long time in football. During a pandemic, it has felt like an age. For Neil Lennon, it must have seemed like an eternity.

At this time around 12 months ago, life was pretty peachy for Lennon and Celtic. A resurgent run of form after the winter break had them within touching distance of a ninth title in a row, and they were on course for a quadruple Treble.

On the other side of the city, life was not going as swimmingly for Steven Gerrard and Rangers. Having already been unceremoniously papped out of the Scottish Cup by the Premiership’s then-bottom side Hearts, the form of Gerrard’s men had fallen off a cliff.

Things came to a head at the beginning of March, as Hamilton plundered Ibrox and left with all three points courtesy of a lone David Moyo strike, on a night when a smattering of awkward applause had greeted a planned eight-minute show of support for the man in the home dugout, who was under some considerable pressure at the time.

The scenario seems hard to believe given the current state of play in Scottish football, and the contrasting moods of the two sets of supporters could hardly now be more reversed. It is Rangers who are riding high and lording it up over their great rivals, with their supporters’ only worry now being their club’s ability to hold on to Gerrard, rather than pushing to get rid of him.

Sadly for Celtic and for their manager Lennon, the big tackety boot is now firmly on the other foot, and that it hasn’t landed squarely on Lennon’s posterior and bounced him out of the manager’s office at Lennoxtown is a mystery to a great many of their fans.

So, how exactly did Gerrard turn the tables not only on Celtic, but on the perception of his managerial era at Rangers, and ultimately work his way back into the affections of the supporters? Well, by winning games, of course. But there was more to it than that.

While the coronavirus pandemic is of far greater consequence than what effect it had on Scottish football, like all other areas of life, there was of course a wide-ranging impact.

For a start, with Rangers trailing Celtic by 13 points in the Premiership, albeit with nine games to play to Celtic’s eight, the league was called early and Celtic were awarded the title.

At the time, there was no real prospect of Rangers overcoming that deficit, particularly with the contrasting form of both sides, but suddenly the focus shifted from the collapse suffered by their own side to railing against the injustice of it all.

How the season would have ended was anyone’s guess, but given Rangers lost two and drew one of their last five league games while Celtic won four and were held just once, it is reasonable to suggest the final margin between the clubs could have well been wider than it was when hostilities were halted.

So it was that the underperformance of Rangers in the second half of the campaign was able to be swept aside, and Gerrard more than made the most of his reprieve. The Rangers manager deserves an enormous amount of credit for the way he has wrenched the baton from Celtic’s hands as Scotland’s frontrunners and he has ran with it all the way to his own surely unassailable lead at the top of the Premiership.

Now the only way the fans would be responsible for Gerrard leaving Rangers is if they could carry him shoulder high down Edminston Drive, while Lennon has seen his legendary status in the eyes of Celtic fans take an absolute battering.

That Celtic’s season has been a disaster is indisputable, and as manager, Lennon has to take on the majority of the blame. He will know that more than anyone. But it has been quite something to see the shift in Lennon’s status in the eyes of a great many Celtic fans, with the board’s backing of their manager in the face of protests and rancour as the ten-in-a-row dream has bitten the dust being seen not as admirable loyalty, but as infuriating intransigence. Nay, even contempt for the Celtic support.

Trying to get a handle on the mood music of a group of fans as large as the Celtic support is difficult at the best of times, but with fans not allowed access to stadiums, it is only the outrage expressed in banners at Celtic Park or the training ground and the vitriol expressed on social media that is available to take their temperature.

We will have our answer on whether the majority of Celtic fans have reached boiling point soon enough when season ticket renewals come around. Peter Lawwell may be stepping down at the end of the season, but with Lennon talking about summer transfer plans and seasons yet to come, will the sacrifice of the CEO be enough to sate the ‘bloodlust’ the manager has recently referenced?

It is doubtful that the recent upturn in results will, being viewed reasonably as far too little and way too late. But if Lennon can get this side performing at the level they showed in the second half against St Mirren, carry that on into next season to have Celtic competing for the title 12 months from now, might there be a way back into the supporters’ affections for him too?

It’s a hell of a long shot, and I just can’t see it. Despite his own apparent mystification at being posed the question of whether or not he will quit in the summer, a parting of the ways between Celtic and Lennon seems the only possible outcome here with the support at such odds with the club.

But then again, as Gerrard has shown, a year is a hell of a long time in football.

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