Against Hearts, it happened in the 92nd minute. Against Dundee, it was the 96th minute. And against Rangers on Sunday, it was the 86th minute. Late winners have become the hallmark of Celtic since the return of Neil Lennon as manager and with every last gasp goal the Northern Irish boss performs the same routine, sprinting down the touchline to celebrate in sheer exuberance. And in relief too.
Indeed, Lennon’s celebrations haven’t just been the demonstration of a winning manager, but of a lucky one. Celtic have been far from impressive since the departure of Brendan Rodgers to Leicester City. Sure, they have won four from five, with their only draw coming against Aberdeen, but how many of those victories have been the product of comprehensive, coherent performances?
On Sunday, a goal and a man to the good over Rangers after just 31 minutes, it seemed that Celtic might finally turn in such a display with Lennon at the helm. The Hoops were in full control and looked destined to add to their tally. And yet even with circumstances in their favour, it took a late winner to get over the line.
Celtic allowed Rangers back into the game in the second half. Steven Gerrard’s outfit might even have edged ahead had Ryan Jack shown a little more composure from a Ryan Kent cut back late on. James Forrest’s strike with just four minutes left came, largely, against the run of play. Celtic, as they have done more than once in recent weeks, got the rub of the green.
On the basis of results alone, Lennon has held the fort well. Celtic now hold a 13-point lead over second place at the top of the Scottish Premiership table – their largest advantage of the season so far. The Hoops will make it eight league titles in a row, edging them closer to the fabled milestone of 10. Lennon started that run and he may well finish it.
But qualitative evidence points to a regression from Celtic under Lennon. They are a team on the brink of an identity crisis. While Rodgers want his side to dominate the ball, picking their attacking plays through careful consideration, Lennon favours a more direct style. He wants his players to move into the final third quicker.
And yet, in an attacking sense, this hasn’t resulted in more productive performances from Celtic. In fact, Lennon’s side have toiled through games. Take the home draw against Aberdeen, for instance. By Lennon’s own admission, Celtic lacked the spark expected of a team chasing their eighth successive league title.
“We didn’t work their goalkeeper enough, we were a little bit pedestrian, our final ball wasn’t great and we lacked a bit of urgency,” said the interim Celtic boss after that particular game and it was a similar story away to Dundee the week after, when Odsonne Edouard’s winner deep into stoppage time spared the Hoops’ blushes.
Celtic scored 14 times in their five domestic outings before Rodgers’ exit, while Lennon’s side have scored just half that tally in their five games under Lennon. The dramatic nature of many of those goals have masked a greater deterioration in Celtic’s recent performances. Still, however, most expect Lennon to be given the job permanently this summer.
Rodgers’ exit caught Celtic off guard. It was understandable that in such a situation they turned to Lennon to keep things steady. For the most part, he has done that. Celtic are out of sight at the top of the league. They’re still on course for a Treble Treble. Despite all this, though, and despite Lennon’s entertaining celebrations, the drop in Celtic’s level under his control mustn’t be ignored.