Neil Lennon first signed for Celtic, after a prolonged pursuit by Martin O’Neill, on Dec 6, 2000. Lennon went on to captain the club and manage it twice, this being his second time in the hot seat, but whether or not he will still be in charge next Sunday is the subject which will agitate Hoops fans in the aftermath of Ross County’s historic first win at Celtic Park and the first time Celtic have lost four successive home matches since 1958.
The Staggies progressed to the quarter-finals of the Betfred Scottish League Cup with a first-half penalty kick converted by Ross Stewart and Alex Iacovittie’s late header from a corner kick.
Celtic have now lost five of their 10 most recent games in all competitions, including back-to-back 4-1 Europa League defeats, plus a beating by Rangers in the first Old Firm league derby of the season.
The Betfred trophy might be the least of the Scottish honours, but this outcome ended a sequence of 35 straight cup wins for Celtic during a period of unprecedented total domination of the domestic game.
Before Sunday, County had only won twice in seven outings – both against lower division opponents, in the group stage of the competition. One of those successes, against Elgin City, was their only win in six games on the road.
Against Premiership opponents, their most recent win was away to St Johnstone on Sept 27. In any other circumstance, the contrast between the mood in the Staggies dressing room would have presented a gloomy contrast with Celtic’s situation.
The Hoops came into the match having lost only a single domestic game this season. They were also favourites to secure a fourth successive clean sweep of Scottish domestic honours against Hearts in the deferred 2020 Scottish Cup final next month. Yet Lennon was effectively on notice because the champions’ pursuit of an unprecedented 10th successive title is imperilled by the 11-point gap between them and Rangers, despite the two games they have in hand on their arch rivals.
What transpired against Ross County was emblematic of Celtic’s failings. By the interval the Hoops had enjoyed 75 per cent of possession and had struck the post through Albian Ajeti against opponents who had been forced into a midfield change after only 13 minutes when Charlie Lakin pulled up and had to be replaced by Jordan Tillson.
Nevertheless, the fact that County’s composure was rarely disrupted testified to Celtic’s eerie lack of confidence in attack. Odsonne Edouard once more repeatedly chose the wrong option when gaps were prised open in the visitors’ defence, but he was part of a gang of culprits, with Tom Rogic looking listless and even the usually ebullient Ryan Christie turned in an anaemic performance – his lassitude a sure sign that the lack of confidence has become viral. It was equally evident at the back, where Christopher Jullien’s return from injury has not produced the expected improvement. Instead, Jullien was caught out when Stewart got across him, and the Frenchman’s trip on the County striker yielded a penalty, from which Stewart coolly sent Vasilis Barkas the wrong way.
Ajeti, whose presence at Celtic Park puzzles most observers and incenses many fans, might have gained a measure of redemption with a fine shot which beat Ross Laidlaw but battered off the far post. The Swiss forward cost £5 million from West Ham and, so far, has yielded a return of five goals, the last of which came on Sept 27.
The rest of the contest was entirely predictable. County jammed their penalty box, but Celtic were devoid of inspiration and conceded the decisive second goal six minutes from full time when Iacovittie headed home a flick-on from what was only the Staggies second corner of the afternoon.
Disenchanted Celtic fans have excoriated Lennon and the club’s directors on social media, but this turn of events prised many from their keyboards and, by the time the manager met the media, there was a crowd of protesters outside, with several police in attendance and a force helicopter overhead.
Police said two of their officers had suffered minor injuries as a result of the protests, but that no arrests had been made.
Against this noisy backdrop, Lennon made no attempt to downplay the force of feeling arrayed against him. Instead, he displayed a self-belief sorely lacking amongst his players. “It doesn’t make me feel good, obviously,” he said.
“The game was a microcosm of the season and the run we are on – a penalty and a set-play – it’s symptomatic. We are giving the opposition free hits.
“Do I see myself as the man to lead the team? Of course. I believe in myself. I am not always going to harp on about what I have done in the past, but I am falling short of that at the minute, me and my backroom team.
“It’s OK saying, ‘we are going to turn a corner’. There is no point talking about it – we need to do it and soon, otherwise the landscape could change for me very quickly.”
Christie then made a vigorous defence of his manager and team-mates. “I’m not just saying this, but the mood was brilliant coming out of yesterday at training,” the Scotland midfielder said.
“People automatically say, ‘they don’t care for the club’ or ‘they’re not trying their best’, whereas every single person out on that pitch today was absolutely desperate to get a result to put things right.
“But it must be horrendous for them sitting at home watching us, the team they love to see win every week. It’s been near perfection over the last however many years, so when a run like this comes along it is a real shock to the system.”
Celtic: Barkas, Bitton (McGregor, 68), Jullien, Ajer, Elhamed (Duffy, 79), Brown, Christie, Laxalt, Rogic (Klimala, 84), Ajeti (Elyounoussi, 68), Edouard.
Substitutes not used: Taylor, Ntcham, Bain, Henderson, Ralston.
Ross County: Laidlaw, Watson, Donaldson, Morris, Iacovitti, Reid (Randall, 77), Paton (McKay, 89), Kelly, Vigurs, Lakin (Tillson, 13), Stewart.
Substitutes not used: Gardyne, Hylton, Munro, Wright, Williamson.
Goals: Stewart (39, pen), Iacovitti (84).
Referee: Kevin Clancy (Scotland).