“This is the beginning, not the end” was the defiant declaration by Neil Lennon after a 4-0 thumping of Motherwell in the final game of last season. The impressive, normally title-winning points haul of 92 points, wasn’t enough to pip Walter Smith’s Rangers to the post.
Barely within 10 games of the new season; 10 points behind Rangers and clawing desperately at Europa League competition, it’s been one disaster after another and already the more hysterical supporters are questioning Lennon’s appropriateness for the job. A fourth SPL title in a row for Rangers is unfathomable, and given the apparent gulf in resources and Ally McCoist’s relative rookie status, the performances so far have not been acceptable.
Steve McLaren’s availability has piqued the interest of the rumour-mongerers and no-doubt the tabloids, as has previous managerial target Owen Coyle’s unstable position at Bolton Wanderers. The convoluted searching of the board during the summer of 2010 fuelled the notion that Lennon was only ever grudgingly given the job, which doesn’t allow for much leeway during the (current) bad times. The goodwill that came with being a bona fide on-the-park Celtic legend along with the brutal off-the-park madness last term, seems to have been sapped. It is the fickle nature of some fans.
Were they clambering over themselves to tell us “We are all Neil Lennon” 9 SPL games ago? This is an incredibly early stage of the season and talk of chopping and changing the manager is premature given the following reasons for optimism:
The only way is up
By any stretch of the imagination, this is a trough in Neil Lennon’s managerial stint. Consider the 8 match SPL winning streak at the tail end of the 09/10 season, which continued 8 matches into his second (and first full) season in charge.
Even great sides suffer troughs in form, but given patience and support will lead back to the peaks. Currently the trough is Mariana Trench-esque – but there are undoubted signs of improvement. The defending against Udinese was solid and composed, and despite mostly having the better of the match away to Hearts, a momentary lapse in concentration from Ki, combined with fine attacking movement led to Skacel scoring. The second goal was tactical and silly – as highlighted in the match report – exposed at the back, chasing the equaliser with ten men. But the defence is improving.
Injuries hampering progress
Lennon’s luck this season with injuries has made Rangers squad look healthy. Long term lay-offs for (Player of the Year) Emilio Izaguirre, Thomas Rogne, Cha Du Ri, Kelvin Wilson and Scott Brown have set the back-drop for more short-term niggles, such as to the influential pair of Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal (amongst others).
As the first-choice players are drip-fed back into the match squad, performances and results are surely to improve.
Points gap/fixture schedule
The points gap could feasibly be reduced to seven points, and with 28 games remaining is by no means insurmountable. Not when there’s evidence to suggest the team is capable of a 16 SPL game win streak. But equally, Ally McCoist has not been faced with two of the toughest fixtures in the schedule – (Glasgow Derby) away, and Hearts away. Essentially away trips to two of last seasons top three. Will there still be a 7 point difference after those fixtures?
(Still) just the beginning
A manager’s mettle is tested during the darkest times, and every team suffers at some stage. How will rookie manager Ally McCoist cope when the chips are down? He is untested. Neil Lennon meanwhile will point to 3 areas of improvement (aforementioned form, injuries, fixtures) with a proven track record of performing in the SPL. The 16 win streak between season 09/10 and 10/11 is effectively unheard of – and that run with theoretically a weaker squad.
To paraphrase Alex Ferguson, the sole criteria for a successful manager is to be in the running for the title come May. Lennon will meet that target.