Aberdeen v Celtic: Neil Lennon faces Scottish Cup audition at Hampden
|Scottish Cup semi-final: Aberdeen v Celtic|
|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Sunday, 14 April Kick off: 14:00 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website|
When Brendan Rodgers steered his car out of Lennoxtown for the final time, leaving in such haste that he didn't even say farewell to the players he had eulogised for two-and-a-half seasons, Celtic turned to Neil Lennon in their moment of turbulence and Lennon has not let them down.
You could say that Celtic's performances under the interim manager have been decidedly underwhelming, but they've been enough. You can say that their goals have dried up from the 19 they scored in Rodgers' last seven domestic games to the nine they've claimed in Lennon's seven games, but a ship in danger of a little buffeting has been steadied.
Celtic toiled against Dundee, looked destined for a draw against Hearts and were out-played in the second half against Rangers, but all three of those games were won in the end. The aesthetic wasn't good, but it wasn't always good this season under Rodgers either. Under Lennon, the gap at the top of the league has been widened and a Scottish Cup semi-final has been reached. That's job done, so far.
'Celtic people respect and love him, but...'
On Sunday, they play Aberdeen at Hampden. Every cup semi-final is significant, but this is especially important for Lennon as he tries to present an irresistible case for being made permanent manager for a second time in the summer. Lennon is mad keen on the job, but it's fair to say that supporters, in general, are a little torn.
Celtic people not only respect him, but love him. That's not to say that they want him. It's complicated, this. Heads and hearts are at odds all over the place.
Two Twitter polls were conducted earlier in the week. You have to allow for the interloper element in these things, but almost 13,000 people contributed and the results were not kind on the incumbent. In one, 75% of (Celtic) people said they did not want Lennon as the next manager. In the other, including four options, Rafa Benitez came out on top on 39%, Roberto Martinez was next on 28%, Steve Clarke was third on 24% and Lennon came in fourth on just 9%.
- Will treble treble dream go on for Celtic? Or can Aberdeen spring shock?
- Test your Aberdeen & Celtic Scottish Cup knowledge
If Lennon steers Celtic to victory on Sunday, these percentages could change dramatically. But for now, those numbers are instructive when backed-up by the thoughts of regular Celtic supporters. Among the masses there is a huge fondness for their old hero, but also a reluctance to commit to him.
Some of that comes from a place of concern - the world that Lennon would be cast into as full-time Celtic manager is loaded with potential bile and bigotry from elsewhere - but, to others, continuing with Lennon would represent an unambitious move, a settling for a convenient option rather than a bold appointment of a new voice with new ideas that could bring new impetus, as Rodgers did.
The case for Lennon is clear. He won trophies as Celtic manager and he upset the odds in Europe in a way that Rodgers never could. On his watch, Celtic signed Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster, Gary Hooper - all of whom gave great service before being sold to England for a collective £40m. Lennon also brought in Kris Commons - pound-for-pound one of his best acquisitions. He signed Tom Rogic and Leigh Griffiths, two men who have contributed hugely. There were duds along the way, but the good ones were very, very good.
Celtic have been stodgy in his games in charge, but it would be grossly unfair to depict Lennon's teams as dull. Some of the biggest examinations of Rodgers' Celtic in domestic competition - and some of the best entertainment - came when Lennon's Hibs were the opposition, a clever and fearless attacking force on many occasions.
And yet there's this hesitancy among some in the Celtic ranks, this coolness about turning the clock back, this attitude that could best be described as, 'We love Lenny, but...'
If not Lennon, then who?
At the centre of all of this is Celtic's pursuit of 10-in-a-row, the holy grail of league titles that the support has been singing about for years as if the job has already been done.
To get themselves over the line in the coming seasons, do they push the boat out again and try to find another Rodgers, an experienced and charismatic manager that will galvanise the club anew? Or do they stick with the man they have, a guy who might not be the shiny option but who knows the club better than anybody and who has been over the course many times before - and won?
Lennon will know that if he steers home a Treble Treble then the gig is surely his. He's also said that the gig is not dependent on him doing so. That's debatable. He wouldn't want to test the theory. He might not like the outcome.
If not Lennon, then who? Every other day the bookmakers report "a flood of money" being gambled on one character or another, a "major plunge" on Martinez or Andre Villas-Boas or Michael O'Neill or Clarke or Benitez. The German Marco Rose, an early fancy, was removed from the market midweek when he committed to Borussia Monchengladbach. Most of these reports of wheelbarrows full of money being lumped on a supposed contender are publicity-seeking ruses, well-worn exercises in kite-flying to get the company name into the public conscience.
It's all part of a game that Lennon has to live through. Martinez remained joint-favourite until Friday morning when news came through that he wasn't interested. Given that he has a rather appealing job as manager of Belgium, the highest-ranked nation in world football, the idea of him ever having been interested is dubious.
Villas-Boas - who quit his last job at Shanghai SIPG to pursue his love of motorsport and to follow in the tyre tracks of his uncle Pedro by competing in the Dakar Rally - has been mentioned because somebody apparently saw him playing golf with Dermot Desmond. Villas-Boas has also now been ruled out despite probably never having been ruled in.
Quite why Benitez is listed is anybody's guess. If and when he leaves Newcastle United then it's somewhat improbable that he'll see Scotland as the natural progression.
David Moyes, Jack Ross, Alex Neil - there's three more. The names will keep on coming until such time as Celtic make a formal announcement. The sense is that the club are looking around but deep down they desperately want to give it to Lennon. He has work to do before they make it formal, though.
Every game is an audition - and this semi-final is tougher than most. Aberdeen have already drawn with Lennon's Celtic in Glasgow. The other three meetings this season were single-goal victories for Celtic. The Dons remain the only Scottish team to beat them at Parkhead since December 2015.
As manager, Hampden has a few happy memories and a few ghosts for Lennon - the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Ross County in 2010, the League Cup final losses to Rangers in 2011 and Kilmarnock in 2012. He can't really afford another one of those upsets without it boomeranging back to damage his chances.
If not Lennon, then who? That's not an easy question to answer. Lennon's job on Saturday, and beyond, is to keep on winning thereby reducing the number of people asking it.