Twelve months ago, nearly everyone was certain that Celtic would cruise to their long sought-after tenth SPL title in a row. It was inevitable. And yet in this most turbulent of seasons, Celtic find themselves not just without a tenth title, but in utter calamity.
Their captain Scott Brown has agreed to join Aberdeen on a free transfer at the end of the season, leaving a seismic void both on the pitch and in the dressing room. Key players such as Kristoffer Ajer, Odsonne Edouard, and Ryan Christie are all entering the final year of their contracts while a host of other loaned players will be returning to their parent clubs. And of course, Neil Lennon resigned in February.
Lennon’s tenure was characterized by a perceived outdatedness in his managerial approach. In stark contrast to Brendan Rodgers, who professionalized and modernized Celtic to an unprecedented degree, Lennon often cut an anachronistic figure rooted in ineffective methods.
His Celtic had a startling lack of tactical versatility and a pronounced inability to create chances against deeper sitting defences. Lennon’s man-management, his nominal strength, also seemed to fail him. His abrasive, confrontational approach that led to public denouncements of certain players reportedly divided the dressing room and, crucially, made it difficult for him to unite the fan base.
That will surely be Celtic’s priority when looking for a replacement: finding someone to bring the club together under a collective vision. Put in that context, it makes sense that they’re reportedly targeting Eddie Howe.
Howe was far more than a head coach at Bournemouth. He was etched into the fabric of the club and the community, reminiscent of that bygone era of dynasty builders in English football — Sir Bobby Robson at Ipswich, Brian Clough at Nottingham Forrest, Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. It goes without saying that Howe is nowhere near that calibre of coach, but his respective impact at Bournemouth was similar.
In Howe, Celtic would be hiring somebody who is capable of directing a broader vision for a club and raising its standards through his leadership. From the academy to the scouting, Howe had an imprint on virtually every aspect of Bournemouth’s footballing structure. He led the club’s evolution from League Two to the Premier League both on and off the pitch in a way few other coaches have in recent times.
There’s also reason to appreciate Howe not just for the impact he had at Bournemouth, but how he made that impact. Taking any club from the recesses of League Two to as high as ninth in the Premier League is remarkable in and of itself. But Howe did it in his own distinct way. From the way he spoke in press conferences to how he acted on the touchline, he always gave the impression of a cerebral, considered coach who belied the caricature of the loudmouth, “proper” English manager.
He also stood for something clear from a tactical viewpoint, implementing an attractive, engaging style of football at one of the top-flights least glamourous clubs. That reveals some obvious technical and tactical strengths — his ability to coach neat patterns and instil certain structures to facilitate a possession-based approach. But there’s also the psychological element: the ability to instil confidence in players to execute his style despite their lack of experience with it. That was the most impressive aspect of Howe’s work as a coach and it’s what earned him his lofty reputation in England.
It’s worth noting, though, that Bournemouth’s tactical identity seemed a bit remote towards the latter stages of Howe’s tenure. They appeared increasingly reliant on set-piece goals and counter-attacks as opposed to an ability to dictate the course of a game on their own terms. However, it’s hard to attribute that to Howe, the limitations of Bournemouth as a club, or just the consequence of a managerial cycle running its course.
The same holds true for Bournemouth’s curious dips in form. The Cherries would often start the season brightly, but that would give way to a dire stretch before a timely turnaround would usually steer them clear of relegation but equally bereft of their early-season promise.
It was a peculiar pattern, one that Howe never solved. One could argue that those sudden drops in form could be avoided by a coach with more adaptability, someone who could use a different system or tweak their style of play to respond to the team’s peaks and troughs. But how can a coach do that when they don’t have the sufficient quality or quantity of players?
At Celtic, it’s reasonable to expect that Howe can be more tactically flexible and can oversee more sustained periods of winning form given that he’ll have higher quality players relative to the rest of the SPL. That may not be the case, and that’s a risk Celtic have to take, along with the fact that the 43-year-old has no European experience. But the promise Howe offers is surely worth taking that risk.
He is an ideal figurehead for leading a long-term project at Celtic, someone who can bring stability and cohesion to a club in desperate need of it.