Neil Lennon’s managerial career taking backward step at Bolton

Former Celtic manager struggling this season with club lying at foot of Championship

‘I take full responsibility,” he said. “I apologise to the supporters,” he said. “Middlesbrough won the 50/50s,” he said. And on he went: “We were off the pace physically; I’ve not spent a penny; I’ve sold a few; that’s where we are.”

Neil Lennon’s post-match press conference in a small room tucked away inside the Riverside Stadium last Saturday lasted just three or four minutes. In that time, though, Lennon said a lot while trying to say little.

He was here as Bolton Wanderers manager and clearly saw his duty as protecting his club and his under-performing players.

Managers can do a fair bit of acting in these situations. Lennon was no different.


But the truth of Lennon's opinion on "where we are" could be seen on the touchline. When Diego Fabbrini gave Middlesbrough a seventh-minute lead, Lennon turned back towards his dugout and spat on the grass. Fabbrini is on loan at Boro; in January Lennon tried to get him on loan at Bolton. He failed, or Bolton failed. And Fabbrini's a player.

Touchline pacing

Ten more minutes of touchline pacing from Lennon and his flaky team were two down. When, just past the half-hour, Kike made it 3-0, the Bolton manager was not to be seen.

Presumably he was squeezed onto a dugout seat wishing it would swallow him whole and transport him somewhere else.

It stayed 3-0 because Boro started to think about Derby County away on Tuesday night. Lennon implied Bolton improved but that view was contradicted by his reaction in the 57th minute when Neil Danns lost a soft 50/50 challenge on the edge of his area. Lennon was furious.

“Even with me taking responsibility, I still expect my players to compete, to press,” he said.

This is the bare minimum required from professionals and Bolton did not do it. The 524 fans who travelled north-east to Teesside deserved to be worried.

They are: the 3-0 defeat at Middlesbrough came after a 1-0 home loss in the League Cup to Burton Albion. That came after a 0-0 draw at home to Derby, which, while not awful, extended Bolton’s goalless run to three games stretching back into last season. When, on Tuesday, they lost 1-0 at MK Dons, the goalless run reached six matches.

The inevitable consequence is that Bolton Wanderers are bottom of the Championship. It is from there that they take on Nottingham Forest, whose manager, Dougie Freedman, is the man Lennon succeeded at Bolton last October.

It means there will be a focus on the technical area once again. Freedman will no doubt be the subject of abuse that passes as routine at football grounds these days; and Lennon might not escape it.

Goalless sequence

Lennon played for Forest in 2007 after his departure from Celtic, so it may not come from visiting supporters. But should Bolton extend their goalless sequence, the home fans could become vocal.

They are entitled to be frustrated. This is the beginning of Bolton’s fourth season outside the Premier League. Freedman was given a couple of years to get them back but last season started with five points from the first 11 games. He was gone and Lennon arrived. Bolton won seven and drew three of the next 12.

This added to Lennon’s reputation. It had been a gamble for him to leave Celtic when he did, at the end of season 2013-14, but aside from those thunderous European nights – and the Old Firm, which was no more – it was understandable for the then 43 year-old to seek a more competitive and financially more lucrative environment.

A good start in Lancashire and who knows where it could lead? Perhaps the Leicester City job might come up.

That was one thought regarding Lennon’s career. Now another is that Bolton Wanderers is looking like the wrong choice.

Established in the Premier League by the management of Sam Allardyce and the spending of silent owner Eddie Davies, Bolton must have given the appearance of stability and potential to Lennon. He met Davies as well as longstanding chairman Phil Gartside and one imagines received assurances about budgets.


But Gartside revealed the week before Lennon was appointed that the club was effectively up for sale.

Then, the last time Bolton had paid money for a player was the £450,000 set by a tribunal for West Ham's Rob Hall in July 2013. That, as Lennon pointed out in Middlesbrough, remains the case.

What also remains is the debt Bolton owe Davies – £160 million (€220 million) and counting. The days of signing Fernando Hierro, Nicolas Anelka or Youri Djorkaeff are over.

Where does this leave Lennon? His instinct, as shown last Saturday, is to stand up for Bolton, but it is only human nature to think about his own career.

Even if he does manage to galvanise this squad, a season of struggle is on. In May Bolton finished 18th, 27 points off the play-offs, and the idea that this term can be different looks fanciful.

More realistic are the odds that say Bolton are second favourites to be relegated to League One, a status they've not had since Burnden Park days.

No manager wants a relegation on their CV; no manager wants to see their team play as Bolton did last Saturday. Neil Lennon has plenty to think about.

Michael Walker

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a contributor to The Irish Times, specialising in soccer