Revenge and recognition are going to be the key words on Neil Lennon’s mind when the Scottish League Cup final takes place at Hampden on December 8th.
On Saturday, Celtic thumped Hibs 5-2 to seal a 30th consecutive win in domestic cup competitions. When Rangers swept aside Hearts in similar fashion on Sunday, it set up the first Old Firm final in eight years.
The last time the two Glasgow giants met at this stage of either domestic trophy was in 2011 when an extra-time Nikica Jelavic goal gave Rangers a 2-1 win over Lennon’s Celtic in the League Cup. Eight years later, Lennon is back at Paradise with the chance to redeem himself from that defeat and prove to Hoops fans he really was the right man to replace Brendan Rodgers.
The challenge of replacing Brendan
When the club announced that Lennon was to be offered the job after last season’s Scottish Cup final – something Lennon would later confirm he was approached about in the shower after the game – it wasn’t met with universal support.
I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.
— DT (@Dan_Turner_93) May 25, 2019
Great achievement today but lack of ambition again by the board
— James Joshua (@josh_25) May 25, 2019
Replacing Rodgers could have been an impossible job for any manager. The manner of his departure had left the Celtic support in a mixture of shock and anger. Lennon had most recently been seen one month earlier being sacked by Hibs after a shambolic season to that point. It was his second managerial role in succession that had ended with his dismissal and despite his successful previous spell at Parkhead, his appointment was seen as a massive downgrade by the fans.
Performances had been far from thrilling when he was brought in on a temporary basis in February. While Lennon did enough to get Celtic over the line for another league title, a limp 2-0 loss at Ibrox appeared to kill off his hopes of landing the job on a permanent basis. He even vented against his own supporters’ criticism of him, labelling them spoiled after their recent successes.
The turning point
Odsonne Edouard’s late winner in the Scottish Cup final changed all that. Having been left in the lurch when Rodgers scarpered to Leicester, the Celtic board were happy to reward the man who stepped in at short notice and delivered the ‘treble treble’ under immense pressure.
From that point, Lennon has quietly let his team’s performances do the talking. Elimination from the Champions League qualifiers was a blow. However, they are top of their Europa League group and are perhaps more at their level in Europe’s secondary competition. Competing and beating teams of a similar standard is certainly better for morale and momentum than getting hammered by the European elite every second week.
Domestically, performances have been near perfect and much more dynamic to watch than the last 18 months under Rodgers. During pre-season, Lennon stated that Celtic needed to attack quicker and three months later he has managed to implement that. They have scored seven more league goals than at this point last season and nine more than two years ago. The 2-0 defeat to Livingston was disappointing, but not dwelled upon. Every team has their off days, and nobody was expecting a repeat of the 2106/17 invincible campaign. Since then Celtic have beaten Ross County, Lazio, Aberdeen, St Mirren and Hibs by an aggregate score of 19-3.
Now they stand on the brink of yet more history. After their performance at Ibrox two months ago, Celtic will go into the final as big favourites. The chance to land an unparalleled 10th domestic trophy in a row and complete the first step towards a possible ‘quadruple treble’ is within their grasp. Led by the irrepressible Scott Brown, this is a squad that has become accustomed to winning. Hampden has become like a second home having played host to some epic celebrations in the last three years.
For Rangers and Steven Gerrard, this is a chance to quantify the progress they’ve made over the last year. Their improved consistency against the other Scottish Premiership teams has allowed them to keep pace with the Bhoys at the top of the league. They also have the weight of history behind them. There have been 28 meetings between the Old Firm in the final of either the League Cup or Scottish Cup. Rangers have won 16 to Celtic’s 12.
Whichever way the final ends up going, it’s likely to have major repercussions for the rest of the season. It will provide a huge psychological boost for the winner and prompt the loser to undergo some serious thinking ahead of the January transfer window. Celtic’s extraordinary run is likely to come to an end sooner rather than later, but for it to happen to their greatest rivals in a final would be a bitter pill to swallow. Anything less than victory for Lennon, then, and those spoiled fans will be making their voices heard once more.