Date: 22nd May 2019 at 12:38pm
Written by:

You never go back. Isn’t that what they say?

Going back is like leaping into the dark, not the light.

The sense of the familiar is supposed to be comforting, but familiarity breeds contempt though, and since a football manager’s tenure usually ends in acrimony of some kind it doesn’t take long for all involved to remember how it got bad in the first place.

Neil Lennon’s departure from Parkhead last time was handled well.

The club was fulsome in its praise for him. He went with the best wishes of everyone. But it had already become strained inside the club, and Lennon, by his own admission, was no longer fully focussed on the job. It looked amicable, but both parties had just about had it.

That they parted on reasonable terms is a bonus, but some relationships which fall by the wayside end after the parties have fallen out of love but before it becomes tough just to sit in the same room as one another. It ends because both realise that if it carries on much longer all the positive and warm emotions which once were there will give way to more negative ones.

I’m watching Chernobyl as it airs on Sky.

By coincidence, I had recently read a searing book on the subject. The disaster there did not happen in a vacuum; numerous key steps – some taken before the construction of the station had even begun – let down the path to what happened.

There had been dozens of minor accidents, some caused by bad equipment, some by human error, from the day it opened until the day of the accident itself.

Mistakes on the night were a contributory factor, foremost amongst them the flat-out refusal by some in the control room to believe that things could be as serious as they looked.

What is it that makes people behave like that?

Why do so many folk ignore big flashing warning signs, preferring to trust to their own “intuition” and other such foolhardy nonsense? They ignore advice from friends, they ignore the evidence of their own eyes … and they ignore the past, where all the best lessons are.

The answer might be important to us, and there’s a lesson close to home.

Alex McLeish is our lesson. He not only stands up as a sterling example of why you don’t go back, but he’s a lesson in how people sometimes ignore what is right in front of them because it’s not what they want to see.

Now, before the hysterics get started I am not comparing McLeish and Lennon either as managers or as men. Lennon is the better man and he is the better manager. By far. By a distance on both counts. But there are similarities in outlook which offer us fair warning.

Everyone in Scottish football who was looking at the matter dispassionately knew that Alex McLeish was a disaster just waiting to happen from the minute his name surfaced in connection with the job at Hampden. Yet few in the media or in the game looked at it that way.

Instead, all acted emotionally. McLeish was their mate, and so the job was a perfect fit. It was only those of us standing outside the bubble who saw it clearly and although some of us made sure that we made our voices heard on it, the appointment went ahead.

Do you remember it being greeted with scorn in the media? Of course not, because it wasn’t. Even now, when everyone knows how it ended, you will struggle to find a single media personality who will say they got it wrong, that they should have been more analytic instead of simply banging the drum for their pal. Hard as it is to believe, Lennon has a lot of friends in the media as well and they have been loudly promoting his cause for two months.

Yet McLeish’s career after leaving Hampden did not justify giving him the Scotland job. Then there was the manner of his departure in the first place, which was a scandal. As Lennon got bored with domestic football in Scotland, McLeish got bored with international football and abandoned his post to go to England. He should never have been allowed back after that.

The way the media which is going to bat for Lennon went to bat for McLeish proves that the people paid to write about our game here genuinely don’t understand it at all. McLeish had been out of football at the sharp end too long and his ideas were backward and outdated.

I believe Lennon’s are equally out of whack with modern concepts.

He has a similar management style to McLeish, that old school “shout at them until they get it” nonsense, which I saw some in the media were still defending last weekend. Frank McAvennie told a worrying story from inside the Celtic dressing room, about a player who called Lennon out after he had stormed in and started to bollock them.

Some in the media agreed with Lennon.

They agreed that it’s perfectly satisfactory for a manager to verbally abuse grown men, professional footballers, as if they were children. The days when rule by fear worked in dressing rooms is long gone though … that attitude breeds only resentment, and if one player is speaking up already you can be sure others are pissed but haven’t verbalised it yet.

And it’s easy to say that a manger who gets back-chat should just clear out the dressing room; there are players in that dressing room who have earned the right to speak up. If the choice is between backing the manager and losing half the first team squad – and if some of the malcontents are our best players – how good a decision would it be?

There are managers who believe that the only way to deal with dressing room strife is simply to run out the players who don’t get with the program.

But what if it’s the program itself which is faulty? What do you get when a manager wipes a dressing room clean of its leaders? You smash a winning team to smithereens and fill it, instead, with weak yes men … and those teams don’t win things.

That’s what Gerrard isn’t understanding.

He wants a dressing room filled with nodding donkeys, but he wants a winning mentality too. Is he crazy? You don’t get a winning mentality from a squad that is too scared to stand up for itself against the ranting of a deflecting manager. Leaders speak their minds. Men who have won everything are entitled to the respect that goes with that. I would hope they’d want to speak if they thought something was wrong in the approach.

Those managers who try to rule by fear eventually do run into opposition and those who crush that opposition do themselves more harm than good.

Our team has won everything these past few years. Rodgers was not a screamer.

The success of this team strongly suggests to me that he did it right. That he was capable of getting his point across without going red in the face. He respected his players, as men, and they respected him. He gave and so he got. That’s how it works in the modern game.

McLeish took the screamers attitude with the Scotland squad, and look what happened, and look who the first social group within it were who he pissed off. It was the Celtic contingent. These guys all know each other, play alongside each other, and the moment one of them reacted badly to the treatment then all the rest were certain to. This is how a dressing room splits open up. From the information in the public domain we can surmise that it’s how the crisis at Hibs began, with one player being singled out and his friends coming to his defence.

Similar happened at Ibrox; Wallace, who was cut loose yesterday with no fanfare at all, was the high profile victim of that.

His friends in the dressing room have long since been shown the door. What’s left over there now? A club that lurches from crisis to crisis, and Gerrard – in lashing some of the players the way he has – is setting the next one up already.

Remember, as of next season he’s no longer the “midfield legend” in the eyes of his players; he’s just another failed manager. I’ve said that I believe that club will come apart under the sustained pressure of the next campaign, and it will.

But that does us no good if our own club is coming apart at the same time, under the same sort of strain.

Some think we should not be questioning the professionalism of Neil Lennon. I disagree. As McLeish and his coaches thought it was perfectly alright to discuss problems in the personal lives of players and to threaten them with being banished from the national team whilst sitting in front of the media it’s also right to remind people that Lennon frequently threatened his own players via the press whilst at Hibs. He also made two public threats to resign.

Sources close to the Scotland camp talked about the chaos that ensued there, about training sessions which were a mess, about coaches who seemed to lack a clue. There was a laxity about it all which the Celtic players and guys like Andy Robertson found hard to believe and even harder to embrace. At Celtic, under Lennon, standards have definitely slipped in every area. Players have been given more time off than they should. Rumours abound that training isn’t as cogent and that tactical plans are not as coherent as they were under Rodgers.

Are those just rumours, or are they true?

There are good sources for these reports, but it hardly matters anyway.

Those inside the club know the facts of it and you might expect them to act on that, but people at the SFA presumably knew that the situation with McLeish wasn’t great either … in the end they fired him only reluctantly, and after results and performances had made it untenable.

But had Scotland got something other than a doing in Kazakhstan I reckon he’d still be there and Steve Clarke would have another year at Killie. I firmly believe that all at Hampden would have carried on with McLeish, in spite of all that, until something happened that blew everything up, the way Reactor 4 at Chernobyl finally did on 25 April 1986.

All this is to say nothing for the performances on the pitch, which are the best signpost to how a manager will do. They haven’t been great. It’s fair to say that Lennon has done the bare minimum in terms of what was required. Save for a few last minute goals the position wouldn’t look nearly as it does, and if that doesn’t worry people nothing will.

In one major way, this is different from the Scotland situation, of course. It’s different because Lennon hasn’t been given the job yet. He’s in it, but it isn’t his until the season ends and the board offers him a new contract, unless they’ve done so and all this is a charade.

But I have to think we’re looking elsewhere. I have to think that things have been happening behind the scenes and that we’re moving in a different direction. Yet it nags at me, this tendency some people have not to see what’s right in front of them. With McLeish, the SFA’s sales pitch was that he knew the people, he understood the job and would fit right in there … with no apparent thought as to how the game had changed since he last held the post.

With Lennon the sales pitch is that he gets it, that he’s “one of our own” as if that made you a better football manager. And so a lot of people are wilfully ignoring the evidence that says nothing good will come of this, that there’ll be problems which even now are easy to foresee for those of us who can take emotion out of it and look at it calmly.

I have to believe we can still get out of this.

We can still make the right decision for the club. We can still decide that this isn’t the way we want to go, and take another path.

Because this might not end in disaster – indeed, I expect us to win the next year no matter who sits in the dugout; as long as that person knows his ABC’s this squad will do the rest.

But it won’t end well, and there will be bitterness along the way.

And if it does all go nuclear, which it could, and only a fool would deny that …

Well our board will be out of excuses, with no way to contain the fallout.