IF the chairman’s message to supporters released by Ian Bankier this week was meant to sate the Celtic fans’ desire for clarity over a number of issues at the club, not least the performance review concerning manager Neil Lennon, it proved to have the opposite effect.
Here, we go through the statement from the Celtic chairman and analyse what was said, what wasn’t, and what should have been made clear.
“In recent weeks, the Club has been the subject of widespread comment mostly concerning, but not limited to, the team’s performance. I have received correspondence from fans expressing their anxiety and seeking information. These messages and feelings are not being ignored and I accept with due humility what has been said. The frustration that is expressed is clear and unambiguous. It is shared throughout the whole Club. That includes, the Directors, our Football Management Team, staff and the players.”
*That there is some acknowledgement of the supporters’ concerns is at least something, but there is little evidence to back up the assertion here that those feelings are not being ignored.
That this season has been a frustration to everyone at Celtic goes without saying, with the common ground between everyone with the club at heart being the unacceptable results on the pitch. However, where these frustrations diverge is when addressing the cause rather than the outcome, with fans angry that the management team have been kept in place regardless, with the board backing Neil Lennon and seeming to be directing their own frustrations towards the Covid pandemic for disproportionately affecting Celtic. The question has to be asked how the board and management team can share the frustrations of the Celtic support, when the Celtic supports’ frustrations are chiefly the board and the management team.
“Across all media platforms, we have been asked to communicate our reaction to events on and off the park and to reveal our decisions and intentions. It is worth saying that over the period in question, the football manager has addressed each and every game we have played.”
*While it is nice to know that the manager has fulfilled his contractual duties to conduct pre and post-match interviews and communicate his thinking to Celtic fans, it is surely the bare minimum that is expected of him? That it merits a mention at all is bizarre.
“The Club has made announcements dealing with speculation over the Manager’s tenure, the Covid outbreak amongst our players in January, the appointment of a new CEO and player sales and signings at the end of the January transfer window.”
*The phrase ‘dealing with’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. Yes, the Celtic board have released statements concerning their manager, but those have been light on detail when it comes to Neil Lennon’s future, and while this statement purports to deal with the promised ‘January review’, there is still no concrete information available over whether the board sees Lennon as the man to lead the club not only in the short term, but in the longer term over the summer and beyond.
As for signings, there was only one, with the loan arrival of Jonjoe Kenny on deadline day to compensate for the sale of Jeremie Frimpong.
“It is acknowledged that the season, to date, has been a disappointment. We approached it with justifiable confidence. Having been crowned League Champions for the ninth year in a row, we looked forward to making it a Quadruple Treble in the delayed Scottish Cup. We retained a number of highly sought-after players, so as to have the strongest possible squad going into this season. We supplemented our player pool by investing in new player registrations. We had in place a Manager with a proven record and the core of a squad who had created history for the Club.
But the harsh reality has been that, thus far, we have not achieved the results we have sought. We have not met the consistently high standards that we have become accustomed to. We do not shy away from these cold facts.”
*Here, the Celtic board may be due some slack. They weren’t alone in feeling that they were in a strong position going into the season, with most supporters and certainly their manager delighted with the strength of the playing squad going into the campaign.
However, that this squad has undoubtedly performed as less than the sum of its parts is unquestionable, and yet, only Covid has been deemed as bearing responsibility for that fact.
With hindsight, the decision to hold on to players who did not want to be at the club appears foolhardy, particularly with the longer transfer window. Subsequently, those players performed hugely below their ability level until well into the season, with their recent upturn in form way too little and far too late to influence the destination of the Premiership title.
It may be harsh given the prevailing wisdom was behind them at the time, but would Celtic have been better served cashing in on Odsonne Edouard and investing the money in Ivan Toney, for example, who was a long-term target and is now lighting up the English Championship? Perhaps.
Either way, as right as almost everyone they felt their approach was at the time, claiming credit for a course of action that has ultimately proved disastrous is a strange approach.
When Lennon publicly castigated those wantaway players after the Champions League exit to Ferencvaros, that error was compounded.
“Across the plethora of media channels, comments and criticisms are instant. Evaluating our options in order to make the right decisions at this time in the Club’s history cannot be instant. As things stand today, we are operating under Government-imposed restrictions with no clear horizon.
We are in the period of review we indicated in our announcement of 7th December. I must state clearly that all decisions we take will be taken calmly and rationally. We will not make hasty decisions that we might regret.”
*Regardless of your view on Neil Lennon and whether he should remain as Celtic manager, the one thing the Celtic board cannot be accused of is making a hasty decision on his future.
The first calls for his head from supporters came in mid to late October. There were protests in November, and a statement in early December announcing a January review of his performance.
During January, aided by the calamitous decision to travel to Dubai, the calls for Lennon’s removal reached a crescendo amid another slump in results. It is now mid-February, and supporters are still none the wiser over who will take charge of the club next season, whether that be Lennon or anyone else.
And let’s not forget that the Celtic board have rather ceded the right to claim prudence when it comes to making major managerial decisions, given they appointed Lennon in the post-match euphoria of a Scottish Cup final win in the Hampden showers.
“There is considerable uncertainty as to how and when the game will get back to normal. Equally, there are opportunities ahead of us, as the structure of European competitions evolves over the next three to five years. Amongst other things, we will be considering how to take full advantage of what comes our way.”
*One of the main gripes from Celtic supporters over the past few seasons, even during the quadruple Treble years, is that they have been underprepared in both the composition and the condition of the playing squad for European qualifiers in the summer. Is this a tacet admission from the Celtic board that they see their best chance of being prepared for the challenges in Europe next season by sticking by Lennon and allowing him to start those preparations now?
If Celtic mean to take European competition seriously next season, then surely the man who will lead them into those matches should be in place as we speak? Perhaps he is.
“Meanwhile, we cannot alter the timeline of the pandemic. Therefore, we face the prospect of further challenges, whilst we play to an empty stadium where our fans belong. The virtual season ticket scheme has not been and cannot be a substitute for the real thing. We do recognise that. We thank all our season ticket holders for the fantastic loyalty they have shown the Club and, of course, we are working on ways in which we can acknowledge that. Your commitment to a season ticket supports our playing squad and allows us to invest in players, giving Celtic the best chance to deliver the playing success that we all want. The Celtic support at our matches is something we have missed, of that there is simply no question.”
*At least here we have some acknowledgement of the fact that fans have been rather short-changed after investing their hard-earned cash into the club on season tickets, with Celtic hardly alone in struggling to provide value when they can’t allow supporters into the stadium.
However, having acknowledged the pivotal role that fans play financially for the club, it is an awfully big gamble to swim against the tide of supporter opinion so brazenly when it comes to the manager’s position when season ticket renewals are just around the corner.
It should also be pointed out that the continual reference to how Celtic have apparently been disproportionately affected by the absence of their fans, by both the club and manager, comes across as a patronising soundbite to fans at best, and a damning indictment on the management team and players at worst.
“The Covid pandemic has cast its shadow over all aspects of normal life and it continues to present many challenges for our supporters and the communities we all live in. On behalf of the Board, I send our continued thanks, appreciation and warmest wishes to all our supporters. The job of your Board is to look to the future and we should do so with a sense of togetherness in the coming months.”
*The rather large elephant in the room here is that while Bankier acknowledges the job of the board is to look to the future, his plea to forge a sense of togetherness with the support as they do so is rather hollow when the fans are kept in the dark as to how the future may look.
In this statement, the can is simply kicked down the road. If Lennon is to stay until at least the end of the season, then say so. The speculation over his position hasn’t been dampened by communication from the board, but fuelled by the lack of clarity contained therein.