RUMOURS had been circulating on the Glasgow grapevine for the last year or so about Neil Lennon wanting to leave Celtic, but it was still a shock when it finally happened.
Especially given the circumstances. When Johan Mjallby left a few weeks ago you thought he and the club were busy looking for a new assistant, and a few names were being touted about. Peter Houston was one, Billy McKinlay another.
But while you can always look for conspiracy theories here or there, or analyse what went wrong, for me it is a straightforward explanation: he feels he has taken Celtic as far as he can and now it is his turn to go and challenge himself at a different level, down in the Barclays Premier League.
Loading article content
That is why I expect him to turn up at another club fairly soon, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was West Bromwich Albion. Derek McInnes has also been linked with that job, and while I know he is highly regarded at the Hawthorns, I feel he has to prove himself again up in Aberdeen for a few years yet.
Any assessment of Neil Lennon as Celtic boss has to acknowledge that, for a managerial rookie, he has undoubtedly been a success. OK, he has hit a few speed bumps in the cups, and would love to have won a treble. But he has been a consistently good manager for the club. He came close to winning the SPL title when Rangers were at full strength under Walter Smith, then showed he could claw back a deficit to win it the following year. Since then he has wiped the floor with everyone, which was pretty much all he could do.
The Champions League is another level where Celtic under Lennon have been consistently competitive. I'm not talking about one-off games such as the 2-1 win against Barcelona in 2012 or the 6-1 defeat at the Camp Nou, but overall Lennon's credit rating is good and if you had asked me four years ago about him as a manager I just wouldn't have thought that would be the case.
While half a dozen of his signings haven't proved to be great, the likes of Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama, Virgil van Dijk and Fraser Forster have helped establish his name as a shrewd dealer in the transfer market. That should stand him in good stead in the Premier League, where the imperative to recruit and improve the players is also at a premium. Neil learned on the job. At times early on he was very fiery, but about a year in he seemed to relax. After losing to Ross County in the 2010 Scottish Cup semi-finals, he was claiming his players were all duds and wanting to clear house. But he learned that, no matter how much you are tempted, you can't slaughter them all the time.
Scotland, meanwhile, has to look at itself when it comes to the way it treated Neil Lennon. Whenever you play for either of the Old Firm you are hated by the other. Regardless of the other clubs you play for, you are always tarred with that brush, and Neil became a lightning rod for that kind of mentality. I don't think he left Scotland because of these problems, but these problems live on after his departure.
THE question for chief executive Peter Lawwell now is whether Celtic are prepared to go back to square one by giving the job to Henrik Larsson. The Swede could be every bit as successful as Lennon, but you can't tell me they haven't got a queue of managers with better CVs lining up. I bet Owen Coyle wishes now he had taken it in 2009 while David Moyes has probably proven too much at Everton not to get another shot soon, despite his calamitous Manchester United tenure. Malky Mackay is also a young, modern coach as he has proved at Watford and Cardiff. Of those, if it was up to me I would probably take Mackay, But I wouldn't blame Lawwell if he gave the job to Larsson.
I played against Larsson loads of times, and he was one of the best I faced. Like Lennon, he is passionate about football, but he shows it another manner, he is usually so relaxed and calm. But I remember a run-in with him late on in my career when I was at Dundee United when he tried to get me sent off.
We were squaring up and he said something to me. Then he ran at me as if he was going to do me. I left my shoulder there, so he bumped off it and flew to the deck. I was raging about it, but the next time we played them at Parkhead - I did my own warm-up because I was superstitious - he came up to me and apologised about it. He gained my respect for doing that, but he had it anyway as a player just by coming up against him as an opponent. I played in the 6-2 game and he was absolutely sensational that day.
I don't know if Larsson is ready, no one does. But I think the Celtic fans are ready to give him a shot.While the Swede's apparent reluctance to leave his current job might be down to compensation, he has usually been as good as his word when it comes to statements made in the past. But when you think how attractive this post would be for some experienced managers. you can't tell me a club like Celtic are unable to attract the Falkenbergs manager.
I WAS always a big advocate of Craig Levein getting the Scotland job because he had proven to be a good coach at Dundee United. But one common denominator with Craig now seems to be his desire to control everything. Stephen Thompson virtually let him run the place at Dundee United, when he went to Scotland it was the whole structure he looked after, and now it is the same deal as director of football at Hearts. If I were him I would concentrate on getting out on the training field and proving to everyone that the Scotland job was a blip.