On the face of it, a lot has changed for Celtic from the start to the end of 2019. In reality, very little has.
Back on January 1st, we were league champions and on course for more success, as well as being the holders of both other domestic cup competitions. We were also looking forward to the Europa League knockout rounds. Much like this year.
But that barely tells half the story. We’ve gone through an immense change over the past 12 months with several key players departing, lots of new heroes joining, oh, and one loyal Northern Irishman replacing a disloyal one.
Lennon has now built his own team
For the first few months of Neil Lennon’s second reign at the club, there was a distinctly Brendan Rodgers feel to his side. You always felt the man from Lurgan was a caretaker of someone else’s team, rather than the leader of his own.
That all changed in the summer when long-term heroes like Dedryck Boyata, Kieran Tierney and Mikael Lustig all moved on. They were replaced by new names – the likes of Jeremie Frimpong, Boli Bolingoli and Christopher Jullien. Players we knew little about but who would soon go on to become household names.
Sprinkle in a bit of stardust with Mohamed Elyounoussi and Fraser Forster and you’ve got the guts of a pretty good team. But more importantly, this is Lennon’s team.
The squad as a whole
A year ago we still had the likes of Scott Allan, Marvin Compper and Youssouf Mulumbu on our books. The summer saw those three all move on as well as the likes of Dorus De Vries, Emilio Izaguirre and Cristian Gamboa.
In addition, we recruited excellently – to the extent where we now have a squad packed full of talent where it was so needlessly bloated before. There is bags of potential that we’re yet to fully see where the likes of Jonathan Afolabi, Luca Connell, Lee O’Connor and Marian Shved are concerned.
Put simply, this is a Celtic squad that is now thriving with competition for places in every area. That couldn’t be a more stark change from a year ago.
We’re a force in Europe again
A year ago we had also qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League. However, things simply couldn’t be more different on that front 12 months on. Under Rodgers you always felt we were due to collapse in Europe, be it at Celtic Park or away from home. We never looked quite sure of ourselves and it showed with weak exits to Zenit and Valencia.
Now, Lennon is building a team that looks confident on the European stage – as was shown in us romping to top spot in a tricky group featuring the domestic cup champions from Italy and France and the Romanian league winners.
We have a far more winnable tie than a year ago, but even a similar draw to Valencia wouldn’t fill Celtic fans with the same fear. Neil Lennon has brought back the thunder in Europe and that is perhaps the biggest change of the lot.