Neil Lennon: Chris Hughton sacking adds interesting dimension to Celtic dilemma
In the mini-league since Neil Lennon took over as temporary manager of Celtic, the club have played 10 Premiership games, winning six, drawing three and losing one.
A 60% success rate has been good enough to get them over the line for an eighth successive title, but is it a sufficiently compelling stat to get Lennon the job on a permanent basis?
It's inconceivable that in the wake of Brendan Rodgers' abrupt exit major shareholder Dermot Desmond hasn't been looking around Europe for another Rodgers-type figure to ease Celtic away from an improving neighbour. He did it before with the audacious move for the former Liverpool manager and nobody should completely discount his ability to do it again with another big name.
Chris Hughton is no Jose Mourinho in the glamour stakes, but when he was sacked by Brighton on Monday two things sprung to mind, One: football management is cruel. Two: is Hughton an option for Celtic?
The 53-cap former Republic of Ireland international has an impressive CV. A former coach at Spurs, where he spent 13 years as a player, he got Newcastle promoted to the Premier League as manager, took Birmingham into the Europa League group stages in his next job (after Alex McLeish had won the League Cup with them), got Norwich into 11th in the Premier League and got Brighton promoted to the Premier League and then kept them there the past two seasons.
As the Celtic hierarchy ponder their next move - Lennon or otherwise - Hughton's availability is an interesting, and unexpected, development.
When assessing Lennon's chances of keeping the job there are a host of things to consider. He took over when the club was head-wrecked by Rodgers' departure, the former manager still swearing love and loyalty as he sped out of Lennoxtown to head for Leicester without even telling his players that he wasn't coming back.
Lennon was there for Celtic when they needed him. That was fortuitous for both parties. He was out of work at the time. He calmed things with a late win over Hearts just a day after taking over. He was serenaded by the support as a proper Celtic man as opposed to the other fella who upped and left.
Gerrard's Rangers making an impression
This is not Lennon's squad, that's another factor. He hasn't had a proper chance to put his stamp on things in terms of personnel. He hasn't had a pre-season to bed in his philosophy of playing the game. Celtic were eight points ahead at the top when he got the job and when they beat Rangers 2-1 at Parkhead at the end of March they went 13 points ahead.
The league was well and truly over at that stage. The pressure was off. The edge went. In the subsequent weeks Celtic drew 0-0 at home with Livingston, 0-0 away at Hibs and lost 2-0 away at Rangers on Sunday. Seven points dropped and the gap that was once 13 points is now six points. From his 10 league games in charge, Celtic have 21 points. Rangers have 23. The mini-battle has been won by Steven Gerrard. Rangers look like a threat again.
But that's too simplistic. Celtic eased up, probably subconsciously, because they knew they could. Rangers only came on a sustained winning run when the league was already beyond them. The twin psychologies here can't be ignored. When Celtic really had to grind out the wins they did it in a way that Rangers could not.
Of course, even that is not straightforward. Just because Rangers didn't have the discipline and mental strength to take the title chase to the wire this season that's not to say that they won't learn from their errors and be stronger next season.
Gerrard will be encouraged but won't be fooled by the narrowing margin at the top. He'll know that Rangers have a way to go before they assume the demeanour of champions. In terms of their football they're advancing, no question. Sunday's dominant performance was their best in many years. If they can somehow keep Ryan Kent for another season then things could get very interesting.
The Jon Flanagan incident - his elbow into the face of Scott Brown that should have resulted in a red card rather than a yellow - showed that they still have composure issues, though. For all the chat about the need to keep their discipline following their plot loss at Celtic Park, Flanagan couldn't do it and was lucky to escape.
Had he walked that would have been Rangers' 13th red of the season. As Scott Brown said afterwards it probably wouldn't have made any difference to the outcome - Rangers were just too good and Celtic too passive - but that little moment highlighted the work that Gerrard has ahead of him. Sometimes Rangers are their own worst enemy. Gerrard can fix that, though. He benched one of his best performers, and chief hot-head, Alfredo Morelos on Sunday. That's the kind of message that sooner or later tends to hit home with ill-disciplined players.
Celtic shouldn't be complacent about the threat from Ibrox. Belittling their rivals for they myriad woes over the years has been a sport unto itself for the Celtic fans, but nothing lasts forever. There was a time when they looked in the rear-view and there wasn't a trace back there. Now if they look they can see Rangers coming. They'd be wise to press on the accelerator.
Lennon has finished off the league and, barring a big upset, will win the Scottish Cup later in the month. Is that enough? And if not Lennon, then who? That's the issue surely occupying the minds of Desmond, chief executive Peter Lawwell and the Celtic board.
Bloated squad for Celtic boss to deal with
If they weren't talking to others then Lennon would surely have been given the job by now. As custodians of the club they are duty bound to explore all avenues, to investigate the possibilities of landing another Rodgers. They have Lennon if they want him, but can they do better? Behind closed doors there must be a world of chat taking place.
Given that Celtic are favourites to secure a third-successive treble it might be odd to talk about the major work that needs to be done on their squad, but it's true, a reset is needed. The squad is bloated, imbalanced and costly.
Their reserve goalkeepers - Dorus de Vries and Craig Gordon - have a combined age of 74. They have a centre-back, Dedryck Boyata, who is almost certain to leave. Another centre-back, Filip Benkovic, is only on loan from Leicester. They have two further centre-backs on their books in Marvin Compper and Jack Hendry who will struggle to get another game. Compper remains a human temple of poor thinking in the transfer market.
On Sunday they had three right-backs in their match-day squad - Mikael Lustig, Jeremy Toljan and Anthony Ralston - and yet had a natural winger, Jonny Hayes, playing left-back in Kieran Tierney's absence. Emilio Izaguirre, when fit, is the other option. Izaguirre is 33, his best days well behind him.
They have loan players who are moving out and loan players moving back in. Celtic have too many players doing not enough to pay their way. None of this is costing them trophies, but it's costing them serious amounts of money that could be utilised a whole lot better.
Somebody is going to have to streamline the operation, inject more quality, lose some passengers and build up a head of steam again. Celtic don't just need to reinvigorate themselves because Rangers appear to be improving, they need to do it in order to avert the dangers of drift. In the relative blink of an eye they'll be playing Champions League qualifiers. In the appointment of a permanent manager, they don't have a lot of time to waste.