As Neil Lennon trudged off, head bowed from the St. Jakob-Park back on the 28th of August 2002, little did he know that the disappointing 2-0 defeat to FC Basel would turn out to be one of the most pivotal defeats for Celtic in European club competition.
History records it as the new beginning for Celtic in Europe – parachuting out of the Champions League qualifiers and into the UEFA Cup, culminating in that unheralded run to Seville. But at the time, it seemed too familiar. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Celtic would promise much only to predictably bow out at the earliest hurdle. While the defeat was the catalyst that sparked greater things, it was also a black eye for O’Neill that ultimately was shrugged off.
Lennon was trudging off the park again 3 years later after Artmedia Brataslava inflicted the most painful of upsets. It was Gordon Strachan’s first competitive game as Celtic manager, and while Europe was seen as a less priority (compared to wrestling the SPL title back from Rangers), that shocking result in Glasgow to Eastern European minnows walloped Strachan’s reputation, and briefly it appeared that Martin O’Neill’s European crusades were nothing but a one-off.
Strachan could never really shake O’Neill’s shadow, and despite his successes never really shook off Artmedia.
Tony Mowbray’s reign was doomed from the start, with his leadership and strategies never matching the enormity of leading a club like Celtic, but similarly, European performance was something of a precursor to opinion levels. Failing to qualify for the Champions League was understandable given the strength of Arsenal at the time, but the meek exit from a winnable Europa League group proved to be one of the final nails in the coffin.
Again, Europe at this point was nothing but a bonus distraction – the SPL was by far the priority and normally 6 Europa League games would’ve sated demand for continental football. But it was all in the manner.
Lennon’s first taste in charge was a welcome deviation from previous seasons. Strachan could never be considered universally popular, and less so Mowbray – but after clearing up the mess of his predecessor, galvanising a sorry and unbalanced side, the board made the popular decision of handing the reigns to Lennon. He was a fan-favourite as a player, as much for his character as his once close to world-class ability as a defensive midfielder, and his popularity continued into management.
His firm maturity in dealing with the shameful scenario in Scotland has also continued to endear him to the Celtic support – if it’s not the bigots and sectarians, dealing with death-threats and physical attacks – it’s being hung out to dry by a malicious national media and an at worst complicit or at best incompetent football association.
For all the respect and good-will from fans towards Neil Lennon the man, Neil Lennon the manager has never been at a lower ebb. Rangers could potentially open up a 10 point gap this weekend, while European performances have gingerly stepped up from dreadful to approaching acceptable.
The performance in the SPL last season was enough to suggest that Lennon will claw back that 10 point gap, especially with the untested Ally McCoist at Rangers’ helm, and like once upon a time for Strachan and Mowbray before, it’s winning the SPL and stopping Rangers’ march to 4 in a row that is the priority. Again, Europe is explicitly regarded as a mere positive distraction.
Implicitly however, another Artmedia, or 09/10 European Campaign – or even another Basel could be enough to turn the wave of good-will into a critical momentum.