The Celtic Solution: Lennon’s out, but who’s in?
With Neil Lennon having tendered his resignation and stepped down from his role as Celtic manager on Wednesday morning, speculation has began to circulate as to who takes his place. Calum Muldoon looks at a few of the names currently being linked to the vacant dugout at Celtic Park.
As Neil Lennon stepped in front of the cameras on Sunday, following a dismal performance from Celtic in Dingwall against Ross County, his job seemed to flash before his eyes. As Jordan White headed the final nail into the coffin of Celtic’s minimal 10-in-a-row hopes, the cries of despair from the Celtic fandom were at their loudest, and the board’s once strong stance on backing Lennon crumbled. The following Wednesday, Lennon resigned from his position and Celtic were left without a manager for the first time in two years.
While assistant coach John Kennedy is taking the reins until at least the end of the season, speculation over who will take over this enervated team has grown massively. Some names mentioned in the list of candidates are ludicrous – Paddy Power has listed former Rangers manager Ally McCoist as a possibility at 250/1. While it would be interesting to see how Celtic fans would react to the man who led their worst enemies for three years taking charge, the chances of that happening are extremely thin. While it is a lot of fun to look at the impossible choices, we must step into the shoes of club owner Dermott Desmond and the board to determine just who will become the man to form a new team from the ashes of this season’s thoroughly underwhelming title defenders.
One name that has been floating around is former Liverpool and Newcastle manager, Rafa Benitez. Granted, on paper, this sounds very unlikely. However, Benitez works best in dealing with teams in similar situations to Celtic. With the club on the ropes, fans are wanting a man with plenty of success and knowledge when it comes to rebuilding teams. One such example could be seen during his time at Newcastle United. Benitez came into the Premier League club late in the 2015/16 season, but was too late to save the club from relegation into the Championship. While in the second tier of English football, he managed to build a title-winning team on a budget set by the infamously stingy Mike Ashley, with the likes of Matt Ritchie, Isaac Hayden and Martin Dubravka joining the club for £10 million or less each, which would fit Celtic’s budget perfectly.
A big name like Benitez would definitely please Celtic fans, and bringing in a former Champions League winner would certainly raise the profile of the club – and Scottish football – in the eyes of the world. It is clear that supporters of Celtic are yearning for a signing close to the profile of Brendan Rodgers when he joined the Parkhead side in 2016 and Benitez might be one of the few managers out there qualified to fill those shoes.
However, a big factor in why this appointment is unlikely is the fact that Celtic will be tight with their wage bill. While they are expecting star striker Odsonne Edouard to leave Glasgow this summer for an eye watering transfer fee, they will need all they can get after reporting shocking losses this year thanks to the absence of Champions League football and the ongoing pandemic. A manager like Benitez would be wanting a mammoth salary to tackle the monumental task of pulling Celtic out of the mud and that might be enough to put Dermott Desmond off recruiting the Spaniard. Mike Ashley has stated that his infamous falling out with Benitez was because Benitez demanded a new contract with a big salary attached and if this is true, it is hard to see how a Celtic team who needs every penny they can get could satisfy his financial needs especially at a time like this, so ultimately, it is hard to see this legendary manager in the Parkhead dug out come this August.
In November, Steve Clarke wrote himself into Scottish football history when he and the Scotland National team booked a spot at the European Championships scheduled to be played out in June 2021. However, Clarke’s future is in doubt with the Tartan Army, as Celtic could look at bringing him on as Lennon’s replacement. Clarke already has experience in the SPFL, as he managed his boyhood team Kilmarnock and led them to a third-place finish in his second season. His amazing work with Killie earned him both Manager of the Year awards and would cement himself as one of the greatest Kilmarnock managers in recent times. Although his time at Rugby Park was short lived, he has built up a reputation of turning once mediocre teams into true fighters and that trend is something Celtic yearn for. Clarke has also been known to highlight the importance of unity in the dressing room and with the Parkhead club in such turmoil, a figure like Clarke could bring the players together and lead them in the right direction. He did this with Kilmarnock, and he did it again when he secured Scotland’s place at a major tournament for the first time in 23 years. A man like him could be perfect for the role in order to piece this team back together.
One issue that could stop Clarke from putting pen to paper is his tactics on the pitch. While his strategy is well-organised and has been known to be efficient, it simply would not work with a team like Celtic. The way the Parkhead side win games is fast-flowing offence, while Clarke believes in a strong defence and refusing to break under pressure. With the teams Clarke has previously managed, they would normally have to defend more than they go forward. While he could help strengthen the Celtic backline that seems to be incapable of defending a set piece, he just would not be able to win games the way Celtic fans have come to expect. So overall, while this one could be on the cards, it could take the Scotsman some time to adapt his tactics to match the tempo of Celtic’s offence.
Potentially the most likely candidate and the fan favourite on the list is this man – Eddie Howe. Having taken AFC Bournemouth from the brink of administration to the heights of the English Premier League, Howe is an expert on pulling teams out of bad situations. While Celtic’s issues are nowhere near as dire as the Cherries’ were, he could easily shape the club into something special once more. Having experience in working closely with the Bournemouth academy, we could see a younger, sleeker, home-grown team challenge for the title in the seasons to come. As well as strengthening ties with the club’s youth system, a young talented manager like Howe could modernise Celtic. With the club set to appoint their first ever Director of Football, Celtic aims to get into shape and keep up with clubs down south and across the continent. Furthermore, one of the leading candidates for the DoF role is Bournemouth’s head of recruitment David Webb, who worked closely with Howe for several years. It could be argued that if Celtic want this rebuild to last for years to come, Howe is the only real option.
While Howe ticks all the boxes for the struggling Celts, he could be his own obstacle when it comes to leading this team. During his time at Burnley, him and his family missed Bournemouth too much. Following the death of his mother in 2012, he decided to return to the Cherries for a second spell as manager which would go on to last for eight years. While this has nothing to do with his skills as a manager, the attachment to his home town might mean he could decide to pass up on the opportunity to complete the 450 mile trip to Glasgow to tackle the monumental task of pulling Celtic back up on their feet.
The current interim manager has not had much luck when it comes to timing. A bad injury more or less killed his playing career when he was 21 and now he is taking on his first proper managerial role at a time when the club and its fans are as divided as they were in the mid-nineties. It is safe to say Kennedy would have had a warmer welcome if times were not as rough at Parkhead. However, as the youngest manager on this list, he has plenty of potential in the years ahead. While he has only been the caretaker coach for one game, Celtic did seem slightly improved from the week before, this time managing to find the net and keep a clean sheet at the same time. While Kennedy has only been a head coach for a mere 90 minutes, he has had a presence at the club for a decade, spending his entire post-retirement career at Celtic. Having been assistant manager to both Brendan Rodgers and Neil Lennon, it is apparent that Kennedy knows exactly what it takes to be a good Celtic manager, having assisted in the acquisition of twelve trophies as assistant coach. While some fans might see him as a cheap, safe option, his experience with the club and youthful ambition could be what Celtic need to return to winning ways.
However, Kennedy might be too close to what has been in place for the last couple of seasons. Celtic need the biggest shake up in their history and picking the last assistant coach might not cut it. While he could have been a decent option following the dismissal of Ronny Deila or Brendan Rodgers, he has never experienced this kind of challenge before. Taking on a squad rebuild in your first stint as a professional manager is definitely going to be intimidating and while he could pull it off, it might be worth splashing the cash on a bigger name to complete this challenge before handing the reins to Kennedy.
As Celtic look to the decade ahead, they must ask themselves: “Can we actually push ourselves further?” If they say yes, we could see a repeat of the glories of the 2010s, with progress in Europe and silverware galore. If they say no, it would be in Rangers’ hands to tighten their grasp on the Scottish football pyramid. Celtic need a manager who will say yes for them. As soon as they step through the doors of Parkhead, they should get to work on the biggest task in Celtic’s recent history. Hopefully, for the sake of unity within Celtic Football Club, the board will not stick to the status quo and will aim to appoint a manager who looks to change Celtic for the better and will thrive off the pressure from fans from around the globe. While the club and its next manager should not dwell too long on the shortcomings of the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership season, they must learn what went wrong at the club, how they can move forward united and make up for this past season.