The controversies that blighted the final months of Neil Lennon’s reign

Neil Lennon has endured a season of misery
Neil Lennon has endured a season of misery (PA Wire)
7:25am, Wed 24 Feb 2021
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Neil Lennon’s second spell in charge of Celtic is over after a tumultuous campaign.

Lennon led Celtic to five consecutive domestic trophies after succeeding Brendan Rodgers but the quest for a record 10th title in a row fell apart in dramatic circumstances.

Here is the story of a season of setbacks.

Leigh Griffiths let-down

Leigh Griffiths struggled for fitness early in the season (PA Wire)

The striker was left behind as Celtic went to France on a pre-season trip in July after returning “out of condition and overweight” following the lockdown, according to Lennon. Griffiths subsequently suffered a calf injury and did not play until October, and has still only started eight matches. With summer signing Albian Ajeti only scoring once since September, Lennon has lacked support for main goal threat Odsonne Edouard.

Fraser Forster rejection

Celtic were hopeful of getting the goalkeeper back on loan for another season but Forster decided to stay with Southampton. The Hoops instead signed Vasilis Barkas but the Greece international has struggled to live up to the £4.5million fee and has been displaced at different times by Scott Bain and Conor Hazard.

Boli Bolingoli jolly

Boli Bolingoli (PA Wire)

The left-back sparked the postponement of two games and put Scottish football at risk of a suspension after playing in a 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock on August 9 while failing to quarantine following a secret flying visit to Spain. The decision left Celtic playing catch-up on Rangers from early August.

Champions League exit

Celtic suffered their third consecutive exit in the Champions League qualifiers when Ferencvaros won 2-1 in the one-off tie at Parkhead. Although Celtic were on an 11-trophy domestic run, Lennon expressed concerns over a “malaise” and claimed some players were hankering after a move and were not committed to the cause.

James Forrest injury

A pre-season ankle injury undermined James Forrest's season (PA Wire)

The key winger aggravated an ankle injury during Celtic’s Europa League qualifying win over Riga on September 24 and has not played since after undergoing surgery. With Mikey Johnston also out long term, Lennon would lack width and options in the following months.

Covid-19 strikes

Celtic responded to Lennon’s post-Ferencvaros comments by winning eight games on the trot but their season nosedived after their next taste of coronavirus disruption when Edouard, Nir Bitton, Hatem Abd Elhamed and Ryan Christie were all ruled out of the visit of Rangers after issues while on international duty. Celtic failed to get a shot on target as Rangers won 2-0 at Parkhead on October 17.

Defensive fragility

Shane Duffy (PA Wire)

The loan signing of Republic of Ireland centre-back Shane Duffy was lauded as a major coup as the boyhood Celtic fan rejected Premier League interest. But Duffy’s dream move soon turned into a nightmare. The defeat by Rangers, which came after Connor Goldson scored from two balls into the box, was followed by a string of setbacks including a 3-3 draw at Aberdeen and a 2-2 draw with Hibernian, where Celtic’s defensive problems were laid bare. Duffy in particular seemed to suffer from a crisis of confidence but even the return of Christopher Jullien from injury failed to stem the problem initially before the Frenchman suffered a fresh major injury.

European embarrassment

Celtic’s defensive problems were all too evident in the Europa League, where they conceded 19 goals, including eight against Sparta Prague, and finished bottom of their group.

Cup run ends

Neil Lennon (PA Wire)

Celtic saw their 35-game winning run in domestic cups end with a 2-0 home defeat against a Ross County side that had lost to 10-man Kilmarnock the previous weekend.

Dissent boils over

The cup loss was followed by angry and violent scenes outside Celtic Park as fans called for Lennon’s exit. Barriers were thrown at officers after more than a dozen police vans rushed to Parkhead to deal with the lockdown-breaking protests. Celtic said some players were “shaken” after being targeted by missiles on leaving the ground. There were more protests after a 1-1 league draw against St Johnstone the following weekend with fans chasing the team buses as the players departed.

More derby despair

Celtic were fighting a losing battle after Ibrox defeat (PA Wire)

With David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro freshening up the midfield, Celtic went on a six-game winning run, including a shoot-out win over Hearts in last season’s delayed Scottish Cup final. They took confidence into the New Year clash at Ibrox and dominated for an hour. But the form of Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor, Nir Bitton’s red card and Callum McGregor’s own goal consigned them to a 1-0 defeat as the hosts triumphed despite not getting a shot on target.

Dubai debacle

Celtic immediately embarked on a controversial trip to a training camp in the Middle East as Scotland prepared to go into a strict lockdown. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon questioned Celtic’s motives and social-distancing efforts after photos emerged of Lennon and Scott Brown chatting over beers on sun loungers and a group of players watching football on TV in a bar area. The trip backfired when Christopher Jullien tested positive for Covid and 13 more players plus Lennon and his assistant John Kennedy were confined to their homes. An under-strength team subsequently drew against both Hibernian and Livingston.

Lennon hits back

The manager claimed many of the self-isolation orders had been political rather than health-driven decisions as he rounded on his and the club’s critics during an explosive media conference on his return from self-isolation. Chief executive Peter Lawwell had previously apologised for the trip and Celtic carried no mention of Lennon’s comments on their official channels.

More dropped points

Lennon got most of his players back for another game against Livingston but his team were held to a 2-2 draw in the snow and club captain Scott Brown was sent off for swinging an arm at Jaze Kabia five minutes after coming off the bench. The setback left Celtic 20 points adrift of Rangers with two games in hand.

Peter Lawwell departure announced

Peter Lawwell (PA Wire)

The club announced on January 29 that their long-serving chief executive would step down in the summer and be replaced by Dominic McKay of the Scottish Rugby Union. Celtic lost at home to St Mirren the following day.

Defeat in Dingwall

The team embarked on a five-match winning run after the Saints defeat but chairman Ian Bankier told fans that the club’s review of Lennon’s performance remained ongoing. And the 1-0 loss against bottom club Ross County on Sunday heralded an end to the review after heightening the prospect of Rangers winning the title at Celtic Park on March 21.

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