Celtic is a club at a crossroads.
Having just clinched their third title in a row, the Scottish club’s plans for the summer were shaken up when manager Neil Lennon resigned on May 22.
The popular manager had followed up his successful playing spell at Celtic Park with more than four seasons of titles and triumphs. None of that seemed likely back in March of 2010 when Tony Mowbray’s tenure was ended before an entire season had passed. Celtic was in a bad place. Its arch-rival, Rangers, was on its way to the second of three consecutive Scottish Premiership trophies, and the high points under Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan seemed miles away.
Lennon’s appointment as interim and eventually full-time boss steadied the ship – and then some. His time as manager was of course concurrent with Rangers’ demise, but even accounting for that, his exploits were exceptional. Three league title wins, two Scottish Cups, and a run to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League that included one of the greatest nights of Celtic’s recent history when they defeated Barcelona. His detractors will point to his cup failures and the lack of a domestic treble that seemed like an attainable goal, but there can be no question that Lennon did an extraordinary job with what he had, and replacing him could prove tricky.
Although there were many theories as to why Lennon decided to call it quits, ultimately the non-competitive nature of the Scottish Premier League must have come into consideration. As did the unwillingness of the Celtic hierarchy to spend the necessary funds when replacing the likes of Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper. In the eyes of the club, those two players made a sizable impact not only on the pitch, but also in the club’s accounts as it profited over £10 million in transfer fees for the duo’s services.
Tactics like that have enabled Celtic to have one of the most financially solid clubs in all of Europe, the importance of which cannot be overstated – just look at Rangers. In that way, Lennon was almost the perfect man to lead the club: a former player and fan favorite who not only had an eye for talent, but could also bring the desired results without spending more than what was budgeted.
But that became a restraint even for Lennon, or so it seems. Anyone following Celtic realized that if Lennon left because of a supposed lack of ambition on the part of the club, then how was there room to evolve?
It’s possibly for this reason that Celtic reached out to two former players and high-profile names who could bring an excitement back to Celtic Park even under the current circumstances. Club legend Henrik Larsson was the first target, but the Swede decided to stay at his post at Falkenberg.
Attention then turned to Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Things looked like they were moving fast when Keane missed a press conference last week, with his boss (and former Celtic manager) Martin O’Neill telling the assembled media that Keane was given permission to talk to Celtic. All seemed set for Keane’s return to the last club he played for, but he suddenly ruled himself out earlier this week presumably to apply for the Aston Villa assistant manager position instead.
The blockbuster names had said no. The goal of bringing in someone with a strong pedigree to excite the fans seemed lost. Until just a few days ago.
Ronny Deila isn’t a name that most British football fans would have heard of earlier this week, but once the 38-year-old Norwegian was linked with the job, it became clear that they should have.
Last year, Deila led Strømsgodset IF to its first Norwegian league title in 43 years, earning praise from many corners of the football world, including ESPN, who wrote that Deila could “be considered to be one of the brightest rising coaching talents in Europe.”
What was looking like a desperate search last week has actually ended by bringing in a coach that fans are excited to see. Deila was impressive in his unveiling on Friday, continually stressing the need for Celtic to not only win, but to promote players through the academy. Those words were undoubtedly music to the ears of the Celtic board.
Celtic was put in an uncomfortable situation as their manager, and subsequently two of their choices to replace him, all denied the club’s approach. But now that roadblock has led to the road less taken, and it actually feels like the right choice.
Deila could be exactly what Celtic need. This upcoming league campaign will be another sleepwalk, but with Rangers likely to return the following season it gives the new manager a chance to get acquainted with the Scottish game before Old Firm matches return. Deila will have to be shrewd in the transfer market, but if his past success is any indication then Celtic are in good hands.
Once Keane and Larsson were out the running, it was hard to see how this Celtic team would be interesting once the new season kicked out. Now the club have taken a leap by appointing a young manager from a lesser-known league. You get the feeling that Celtic almost fell into this decision, but it could turn out to be one of the smartest ones they ever make.