Whenever Celtic suffer the kind of humiliation that befell them on Thursday, there’s always a temptation to try to put it into the context of their most lamentable European performances in recent times. It’s a tough task – and getting tougher. The competition is pretty stiff.
Certainly, the 4-1 capitulation to a weakened Sparta Prague takes its place in the roll of dishonour along with Ferencvaros, Copenhagen, Cluj, AEK Athens, PSG, Barcelona, Lincoln Red Imps, Molde, Malmo, Maribor, Legia Warsaw, Sion, Braga and Utrecht.
That covers 10 years and three managers – Neil Lennon, Ronny Deila and Brendan Rodgers.
Where would you place Thursday’s defeat on the list? In terms of financial loss, it’s nowhere close to some of the Champions League exits. In terms of incompetent football and weak attitude, it’s right up there – or down there – with the absolute worst.
As has been said before, it’s just as well for the players and for Lennon and chief executive Peter Lawwell that there were no supporters allowed in. The anger levels would have been deafening. Every lightbulb in the building would have burst.
‘Celtic’s main problems are obvious’
When Lennon talks about the need for a change of culture in the club, you know that he knows things have gone badly awry. The manager has a habit of over-praising his players – his effusive reaction to a 3-0 win over Hibernian in September a recent case in point – but he was measured on Thursday.
This wasn’t one of Lennon’s famous rants. The words were brutal but they were delivered in a controlled way. Perhaps there was an element of shock in there, too.
If he thought he had turned the corner after a credible draw in Lille and a 2-0 win over Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final, he was wrong. This was them hurling themselves back into the hole they looked like they were emerging from.
The main problems are obvious. The heart of the defence is slow and absent-minded and given to calamitous errors and lousy game management. The midfield is not offering the protection that a fully functioning midfield should be offering. The attack is not firing.
Too many of their marquee players look like bit-part support acts. Confidence has been ripped out of the place.
Lennon alluded to mindset. He said players performed as individuals and not as a collective. They were short on hunger and application and needed to show some humility. He thought they may have lacked enough respect for the opposition.
It was an evisceration of a mentality. He didn’t mention complacency, but that’s effectively what he was on about. Going for 10 league titles in a row, this is the wrong time to get lazy. That’s one win in six now.
Parochialism has trumped internationalism
The decision-making on the pitch has mirrored the decision-making off it. Celtic have signed numerous players over the last year.
Vasilis Barkas, a goalkeeper bought for £4.5m, has lost his place. In a few seasons they’ve gone from Craig Gordon to Scott Bain to Fraser Forster to Bain to Barkas to Bain.
One of their other signings, Shane Duffy – brought in on a weighty loan deal – is a occasional catastrophe. His body language every time he messes up just gets worse and worse.
Two more signings – Albian Ajeti and Patryk Klimala – cost over £8m in transfer fees alone. Ajeti got the last 10 minutes on Thursday. Klimala has been an unused substitute for four games in a row.
There is something jaded about Celtic and even before the ball stopped rolling on Thursday the fans let Lennon have it. The more entitled element of the support have been gunning for him for a long time, some of them dumping conspiracy theories and poison on social media about their manager.
That stuff deserves contempt. The greater issue for the manager is that more and more of the regular support are having doubts about him.
Many of them always had misgivings but the man’s track record and love for the club earned their support. That’s being tested all over again.
Celtic have had nightmarish experiences in Europe before – so many of them – but their domestic dominance obliterated the memory of those failures. Parochialism trumped internationalism.
The reaction to the loss to Sparta Prague wasn’t so much based on another failure in Europe and a likely exit from the Europa League. It was rooted in the threat that now exists to the 10 in a row. As a club, they have become slaves to it. Everything is geared towards it. Everything is about getting the 10 over the line.
The short-termism means that lessons in Europe that might have been learned, have not been. The single-minded focus on domestic history has done nothing for young Celtic players coming through.
To fill gaps, the club accumulated squad players by the bucket-load – Ismaila Soro, Vakoun Bayo, Boli Bolingoli, Lewis Morgan, Marian Shved, Eboue Kouassi, Cristian Gamboa, Youssouf Mulumbu, Kundai Benyu, Marvin Compper being just a selection over the past three years. So many poor decisions were made on recruitment.
Mikey Johnston, one of their own, made his debut in May 2017 and has played just over 50 games in the years since, only half of them from the start. Johnston, a young winger of huge potential, has been deeply unfortunate with injury, but homegrown players have had limited opportunities to flourish in Celtic’s title-winning years.
Presumably, there’s talent in the youth ranks at Lennoxtown. Save for the odd appearance of a Stephen Welsh or a few minutes for Karamoko Dembele, there’s not been much seen of their next generation. Instead, their go-to guys have churned out game after game – and too many of them are underperforming now. Doubt has entered the dressing room.
‘Lawwell is not the type to panic’
Whatever aura they might have had against Scottish opposition is fast disappearing. Any team worth its salt must look at the goals Celtic have been conceding of late and fancy their chances. That vulnerability will remain until the champions find themselves again.
Celtic’s current malaise doesn’t have to be terminal, but they have a huge month ahead, beginning on Sunday with a trappy league game against Motherwell. Lawwell is not the type of man to panic. He’s weathered various storms in the past. He’s a huge fan of Lennon and is grateful to him for stepping in so quickly after Rodgers sped away to Leicester.
Lawwell will be tuned into the fans, though. He’ll know all about the depth of feeling out there about Lennon and the direction the team appears to be going in. His antennae will be twitching if not his trigger finger. Not yet.
On Thursday, Lennon said that he’s faced greater managerial challenges than this, but you have to wonder about that. Being 3-0 down at half-time at Kilmarnock after already losing to St Johnstone, Rangers, Hearts and Sion in the previous few months, was a grim moment for him, but this can’t be far off.
Lennon has four away games in a row – Motherwell, Hibs, Sparta Prague and Milan. The culture change he mentioned is achievable – he has the players to do it – but it had better come quickly.