In the aftermath of yesterday, I have strongly argued the case that it was Bobby Madden who had the decisive impact on the game. His call to send off Bitton, whatever you might think of it, was the point beyond which we ceased to be good for the win.
I blame Madden without equivocation. His contribution was critical. Without it we might well have gone on and secured the three points.
The moment he flashed the red card that was over with, so his decision materially, definitively, affected the outcome.
If, like me, you believe the decision was purely ridiculous and a scandal, then you can say with full confidence that Madden robbed us of the chance to keep our title hopes alive.
He is the guilty party.
That the outcome of such a critical match was decided in a single moment, with all its significance in the broader context, speaks volumes about where we are right now. When a club is facing a massive tie with must-win ramifications in early January something has already gone far, far wrong somewhere and most of us are pretty sure where the blame lies.
But let’s look not at the moment itself but its immediate aftermath, because in the statement that “Bobby Madden cost us victory” – which the manager himself repeated – lies one of the most damning verdicts on Neil Lennon’s abilities as you could find.
There were more than 20 minutes of the game left, and we had them pegged back in their own half for almost the entirety of the match up until that point. Yet the second the decision was made, I don’t think most of us believed we’d get anything from the game. I suspect that based on what Lennon said at full time he didn’t believe it either.
That’s the measure of where we were yesterday, this is what our directors gambled the season on; fair winds and no thunder.
Let me put in a way that makes sense to me, and might make some sense to you.
About three years ago, I read one of the best books I ever have; Sebastien Junger’s magnificent dramatic recreation of the fate of the Andrea Gail, The Perfect Storm, from which the movie of that name came about. Junger tells the story of the lost sword-boat and the men on board it, but he also provides a thoroughly interesting, and thought provoking, potted history of commercial fishing on the east coast of the United States.
Over and over again, in the interviews with captains who were in the storm that night or who had survived their own encounters with the weather and the sea, Junger reveals a dreadful truth; every captain knows that the longer they spend out there, the more trips, the more years, the more winters they face, the shorter the odds become that something terrible will happen from which they won’t return. A lot of captains face that with a kind of stoicism.
Others try to tilt the odds as much in their favour as they can. They don’t stay out past a certain time of the year. They won’t fish if the weather gets too intense. They look for places where the water is coldest, which lessens the intensity of the storms. With a good crew, with a good ship and a good plan in case of emergencies, these guys make the same bet as other commercial fishermen, only they do it with a better hand. Even then, it’s a crapshoot.
Because bad luck will happen. Another thing Junger makes clear is that in a bad situation at sea even a good captain and a sturdy vessel can flounder in moments if just the right (or wrong) combination of elements strikes. Rogue waves can overwhelm a boat in seconds, with little warning, and leave things very much in the hands of the Gods. A storm can descend suddenly, turning smooth seas into a foaming inferno within a very short space of time.
With Neil Lennon we put to sea in a modest vessel with a captain who for years has relied on two things; his ability to fish in calm waters and the skills of the crew. A guy who, to paraphrase Springsteen, lives “by luck and fate.”
The Good Ship Celtic, as captained by Neil Lennon, was not designed for stormy seas.
Our bet when we hired Lennon on 25 May 2019 was that the waters would remain flat and calm. We bet against the weather turning, and when it did we had no answer and we’ve still got no answer even as the seas rage and we rise and fall amidst the waves.
I do not blame Neil Lennon for this. I blame the people who sent him out to sea with a crew who depended on him, in a multi-million-pound boat and took the precaution only of crossing their fingers and hoping nothing went wrong out there.
Neil Lennon is a limited manager. He should never have been entrusted with the responsibilities laid at his door. That is a failing on the men who hired him, not Lennon himself. It’s like putting Nir Bitton at central defence yesterday; are you going to blame Bitton for not being Franco Baresi? He isn’t playing in his natural role. On a good day he’ll stroll. On a day with everything on the line, in a high pressure moment, he’ll behave like a fish out of water.
Across Celtic cyberspace yesterday and today, the overwhelming realisation that the match ended the moment Bitton was red-carded is an indictment of the men who gave Lennon control of the ship. I knew Lennon wouldn’t be able to plan his way out of the hole Bitton had left. I knew Lennon wasn’t going to respond to it the way Rodgers did, because Rodgers is a top class operator, a strategist and a tactician and Lennon is nowhere near that level.
There were storm clouds on the horizon before we even put to sea yesterday. The big turnaround a lot of folk were hoping for depended on those same perfect conditions and the injury to Jullien at the weekend made sure we weren’t going to get them. That put Lennon in a position where he had to choose Bitton or Duffy, neither of whom was the optimal choice.
See, this could just as easily have been a crucial injury during the game, or a moment of luck from an Ibrox player which gave them the lead against the run of play, or any one of a dozen different things that can go wrong and force a manager to change his plans on the fly … and when Lennon has to do that he flounders, it’s just a fact, we’ve seen it all before.
What haunts me looking at the highlights now is the image of Lennon and Kennedy on the side-lines with looks on their faces which to me screamed “Oh, what the Hell do we do now?” Nobody planned for this scenario in advance – unlike Rodgers, who proadly boasted that he had thought that far, after he’d gone to Ibrox, lost a player, put a striker on and won the match.
Yet in the aftermath of yesterday, there is a casual acceptance that when Madden produced the red the game left our control. But as I said above, there were still twenty minutes left and the manager had no fewer than five substitutions available to him.
What were his game-changing decisions in the first instance? Remember, we’re at Ibrox chasing three points when nothing else will do. They are on the ropes. We’ve lost a defensive player, but there are options here for a manager who can read the runes.
Lennon took off our on-form striker, the player who had tested McGregor into a world class save earlier in the game, and also our on-form goal scoring midfielder. I was not in the least bit surprised that he made those decisions; they are Neil Lennon substitutions.
In those choices was a decision to ditch the high press and sit back and counter, a tactic which has been tested to destruction by every club to visit Ibrox this season … a tactic which depends on you staying lucky and nothing going wrong.
Ha! Why did that not seem like such a good idea?
Because if it was going to be that kind of day, if it already had been, we could have shut our TV’s off and taken the draw.
Lady Luck had already spat in our face.
We were just begging for her to give it a good slap as well.
Which she duly did, and a match where the hosts didn’t register a shot on target ended with them winning 1-0 and brought about the effective end of our league campaign.
But it was always coming, and if hadn’t come yesterday it would have been waiting for us somewhere else down the line.
Because this is what happens when you put to sea and bet everything on clear skies and a gentle breeze.
On some other day where we got stormy weather instead, some other day when a dodgy penalty or bad break of the ball cost us three points and let the club at Ibrox extend its lead, we would be telling this same tale of woe.
It’s like Phil said to me in late November; when a manager is living game to game it’s over.
When his team is living game to game you are just one bad result from disaster, and if you’re one bad result from disaster what you really mean is that you are one dodgy Bobby Madden decision from disaster, and surrendering any hopes you have of the title.
Let me say it again; I do not blame Neil Lennon for yesterday; I blame Bobby Madden.
But yesterday didn’t happen in isolation, it was the predictable result of a club strategy based on crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. It was the Perfect Storm.
At the top of our house, in the boardroom, and most probably, most directly, in the offices of the CEO, someone decided to send the Good Ship Celtic out into a perilous December in the hope that we got calm seas.
Then the rogue wave – the rogue referee – struck on the starboard bow.
It’s over, and to quote Herman Melville’s masterpiece, “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”