Sunday, October 24, 2010

Celtic 1 v 3 Rangers: Testing Times For Neil Lennon

Did Willie Collum do Celtic a favour when he took his off the action and awarded Rangers a phantom penalty at Celtic Park today?

Don’t be stupid. Of course he didn’t.

But, by allowing Celtic to ask questions of his performance, the referee might just have let them dodge a few bullets of their own.

Or at least allowed Neil Lennon a little bit of breathing space.

A quick glance suggests that Lennon has turned the club around since he was handed the keys to Tony Mowbray’s collapsing empire.

This, after all, was his first SPL defeat as a young manager learning his trade. But, and apologies for the cliche, Old Firm managers are not given time. It’s not an environment to learn in.

We might justifiably write off his Scottish Cup semi final defeat to Ross County as being an almost impossible task given his inheritance and his impassioned honesty following that game was to be applauded.

But Lennon’s Celtic have failed their big tests. Out of two European competitions before the summer had ended and now a second half capitulation in the first Old Firm game of the season.

The new Celtic are showing worrying signs of retaining a fatal brittleness when the games really matter. It’s one thing to build a team capable of winning against the SPL also-rans, quite another to create a team that can do that and step up a gear when the going gets slightly tougher.

Lennon is also unlucky in running into a Rangers team that has a settled feel, stuffed full of players that understand exactly what this two team league within a league involves. And, for all their limitations in finance and personnel, it’s no accident that Rangers are undefeated in all competitions this season.

Today’s penalty decision can’t be used to hide from the conclusion that the better team won today. We might even say that before Collum’s error Celtic had a degree of fortune. Shaun Maloney’s enforced early withdrawal changed the shape of the game in a way that seemed to suit the home side, Rangers were uncharacteristically slack in giving Gary Hooper the space to score the opener.

Yet somehow Celtic still managed to look diminished in the second half, almost immediately conceding the equaliser and offering little as Rangers pushed on and Kenny Miller got the second.

The season remains in its infancy. Three points is nothing at this stage even if the momentum has now swung slightly towards Ibrox.

But Lennon must feel that being Celtic manager is a constant series of examinations. Arguably he has now failed in four - or at least three - of the biggest.

He’ll face more over the course of a long season. He can only be judged a success in the role if he comes through at least some of them unscathed.

He still has time to do that. Come May I might be eating these words as he hoists the championship trophy aloft. Already there is much to admire in the way he has set about transforming Celtic.

For now though Neil Lennon the manager remains, like his team, a work in progress. I wrote yesterday that this Old Firm was the chance for someone to score a psychological victory for the season ahead.

Walter Smith will be quietly satisfied that he’s done just that. The apprentice in the other dug-out might be getting just a touch nervous.