In Neil Lennon’s ideal world, the 1-1 draw between Rangers and Motherwell at Fir Park would have carried greater significance than being only the third league game this season where Steven Gerrard’s side haven’t taken maximum points.
If all had gone according to Celtic’s grand plan, Lennon’s team would have bounced back from their derby defeat with home wins over Hibs and Livingston, the trip to Dubai having rejuvenated the players.
Having shown evidence of the new year uptick in form that had marked previous seasons, the next step would be hoping for some sign that Rangers might show signs of the second-half dip they suffered in the last two years. Dropped points at Fir Park might have been indication of a chink in the armour, a glimmer of hope, the beginning of an unlikely turn in the story of the season.
The reality has turned out to be somewhat different and as he returns to the training ground on Monday after his spell of self-isolation, Neil Lennon will find it grim and unpalatable to look at how a bad situation has declined even more in just a couple of weeks.
Even before the return from the UAE, the Dubai trip had proven to be a PR disaster. No number of “hard at work” pictures and videos could erase the perception of ‘R&R’ once it had taken hold but the optics soon proved to be the least of the concerns.
Once the squad were back on Scottish soil, one positive Covid-19 test had the negative effect of sidelining 13 players and three members of staff, including the manager and his assistant, for two games.
While some of us tackled home schooling while housebound, Lennon found himself tasked with putting together a team to face Hibs and Livingston that didn’t include some of his biggest names. The teams he assembled drew both games, and while described as ‘makeshift’ they showed the depth of the squad and the magnitude of the problems he has.
The side that took to the field against Livingston had six internationals in its ranks, boasting a combined 169 caps. Of the five uncapped players, three were under-21 internationals. Regardless, they lacked the inventiveness and drive to make the most of their opportunities when up against a Livingston side with a fraction of their value and top-level experience.
After those performances, and four valuable points passed up, the fact that Rangers showed the slightest deviation from their relentless progress to the title becomes irrelevant.
After Saturday’s draw, coach Gavin Strachan was asked about Celtic’s title hopes and said it would be “very, very tough” and “very, very difficult” to achieve the ‘ten-in-a-row’ that has been the prime objective for the season. He has to say that, duty bound not to concede until it’s mathematically impossible and, even then, only grudgingly.
It’s apparent to everyone that a team that has only six wins in the last 20 games is not going to overhaul a team that is yet to be beaten in the Premiership this season. With the League Cup already gone, the league as good as over, and the Scottish Cup suspended, each game looks more like a potential for pain than an opportunity to restore pride.
Wednesday brings a trip to face Livingston on their own patch and David Martindale’s side have already shown that they can cause anyone problems and will relish a second chance to challenge the champions. Lennon will be working to reintegrate players who have spent the majority of the last two weeks at home, and doing so while knowing that the support lost any patience they had long ago.
When the clamour for change in the dugout reached its height in early December, the Celtic hierarchy backed their man but promised to look again at the situation “in the new year”.
That timescale might be vague, though it was interpreted by most as saying that January would bring decision day before transfer deadline day.
The statement that made that promise was clear in it’s support for the management team just six weeks ago. It read: “The board has come to the conclusion that our collective objective is best served by continuing to support Neil and his team as they seek solutions for those challenges.
“Whilst it has been suggested that it is time for a change, at this stage in the season the board believes that Neil and his management team are best placed to turn the team’s performances around and lead us on to success.”
If the “collective objective” was the tenth successive title, then the realists in the club hierarchy will already have concluded it’s no longer achievable. Work now has to be geared towards next season, though a need for immediate improvement is a given.
After Wednesday’s game, which might narrow the gap at the top or compound the misery, Celtic have a clear week until they finish January with home games against Hamilton and St Mirren. This free week won’t be filled with a trip to the sun but it could yet be transformative.
It might bring action in a difficult transfer market to change the squad, or time on the training ground to work on the problems that have beset the side all season.
It will definitely require certainty about the management team charged with leading the process.
The return of Lennon and his players to the Lennoxtown training base this week will mark the end to another strange episode in a season that has defied belief at times. But after a troubled two weeks at the start of 2021, what happens next could define whether the year that promised so much at Parkhead will bring more drama after crisis.