Archive for the ‘SPL’ Tag

Lennon’s New Year resolutions beginning to pay off

There can’t be many New Year resolutions that survive the month of January. Quitting the cancer sticks. Sweating Tennents lager onto a treadmill five days a week. Flipping 50p’s into an old jam jar every time a profanity slips out your gub. I’ve heard them all, but will power alone just doesn’t cut it.

For those still hanging in there come the end of February, it usually takes discipline, hard work, sacrifice and a dogged determination to mute your doubters.

I can’t be sure what Neil Lennon promised himself as the big hand embraced the wee hand at midnight on December 31st, but it was probably along the lines of “I promise to keep my mouth shut and let my team’s football do the talking.”

As we wave goodbye to February and step into March, Lennon’s New Year vows remain intact. 11 games played, 9 wins, 2 draws and no defeats, with his Celtic side conceding just five goals. It’s been a hugely credible 2011, combining a run which has booked his team’s place in the League Cup final, maintained their presence in the Scottish Cup and extended their lead at the SPL summit to eight points, with just 12 league fixtures to fulfil.

Neil Lennon deserves credit for the turnaround in Celtic's fortunes since the turn of the year

But perhaps most significantly for Lennon, and certainly for his band of hooped followers, Celtic have inflicted successive Old Firm league defeats on their greatest adversaries, Rangers. By twice reversing a morale sucking 3-1 loss at the hands of their city rivals on their own patch in October, Lennon has instilled belief and excitement amongst Celtic supporters for the first time since he took his place in the Parkhead dugout.

Yet it was all so different at the tail end of last year. The removal from European competition was followed by some insipid home performances in the SPL that appeared to show the first sign of cracks at the once fortress building on London Road. Some distasteful touchline antics and misjudged comments to the press heralded a six-match touchline ban for Lennon, and when his side travelled to Ibrox on January 2 there weren’t many Celtic supporters who envisaged such a bruising defeat of their neighbours.

But gradually, the team that Lennon has built almost single handedly (of Celtic’s starting eleven against Rangers on Sunday, only Scott Brown and Giorgios Samaras started in the defeat to Ross County last April) have established a togetherness, a fluency and a work ethic which has superseded all who have come before them.

So impressive is Celtic’s current form that when you sit back and measure the impact Lennon has had in his inaugural season as a coach, it is impossible not to praise his performance level thus far.

Some of his signings have been nothing short of a revelation. “Izaleftback? No, Izaguirre.” Few people had heard of this galloping, nimble Honduran before he checked into Scotland in the close season. Gary Hooper’s Scottish profile before signing for Celtic was reduced to a name on a team sheet in a Sunday newspaper sports section.

There are, of course, a gluttony of other signings who have quickly embraced their flame topped manager’s ethos, but Izaguirre and Hooper have been particularly outstanding. The early form of Kris Commons, signed in January, continues to support the theory that Lennon has an ability to spot raw talent when it comes to player recruitment.

Beyond the signings, though, Celtic have benefitted from some bold decision making on the part of their manager. Hampered by the inability of some of his defenders to keep a clean sheet in the early stages of the season, Lennon refused to obsess over this deficiency and instead concentrated his side’s focus on doing what they were good at: going forward.

While some managers may have choked their side’s attacking advances to concentrate on building from the back, Lennon instead signed a further attacker in January in the shape of Freddie Ljunberg. Defensive signings weren’t forthcoming, so instead Charlie Mulgrew was picked to hold the hand of Daniel Majstorovic in central defence. The former Aberdeen player has so far enjoyed great success tucking into a more central role. Such decisions, which may once have appeared baffling to the club’s supporters, now look decidedly shrewd.

It’s amazing to think that just 10 months ago the same club, coached by Lennon on a short-term basis, limped out of the Scottish Cup after a comprehensive defeat to Highland minnows Ross County.

Off the field, Lennon appears to be focusing his energies on coaching his team as they look to wrestle the SPL title from the hands of Rangers, where once his mind was on other things. As he awaits the outcome of his touchline ban appeal, referees have been off his agenda of late. Sports hacks have been scratching their heads for a golden quote, but even this has been side stepped by the Northern Irishman. Even his Twitter account has been inactive for over a month.

Lennon continues to divide opinion in Scottish football, and some of his outbursts earlier in the campaign were inexcusable. However, he appears to have cleaned up his act of late. One would suspect this has been on the back of the advice of some senior figures inside Parkhead.

If there is anything at all that can be taken from this, it’s that his team and their supporters have built up some kind of siege mentality against all and sundry. This has manifested into a team who have recently shown an astonishing level of energy and commitment on the field, with some of their attacking play being a joy to watch.

Lennon deserves great credit for what he has achieved on a limited budget after inheriting a substandard team. But as he said himself after the 3-0 thumping of Rangers on Sunday, the title race is far from over.

If his passion and drive continue to flourish, there’s no reason why his New Year resolutions can’t continue until the end of the season.

Paul Barnes

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