Lennon making the right calls as Celtic's adventure continues
Celtic’s season, which has featured a victory over Barcelona, as well as progression to the last 16 of the Champions League, could not have started better. One Sunday afternoon in August, Alex Ferguson paid a visit to Celtic’s training ground and, in doing so, played a part in Neil Lennon’s coaching development.
“He gave us two hours of his time, which he didn’t have to do, and I thought it was a brilliant gesture,” Lennon says. “It was in the privacy of a room at the training ground, just myself and my backroom staff, some tea and pancakes.
“He was in great form. He has given us little titbits along the way for the Champions League games. I’m not saying that has got us over the line, but every little bit helps.
“He was one of the only managers to write me a letter when we won the championship in May and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that, as well.”
Celtic’s training ground is an enthusiastic, confident environment. The success in the Champions League and the virtually certain defence of the Scottish Premier League are crucial to that. Looking back to how they got there, Lennon refers to his maiden title win as Celtic manager and progression through the Champions League’s qualifying stage as “pivotal”.
“Before winning the league, I felt like I was on probation. It has been a massive year for me, personally.”
Just as a clutch of Celtic players – Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper among them – have received admiring glances from England, it is logical to suggest Lennon, too, could be coaxed to a more lucrative environment.
“People speak about that but I haven’t had one call,” Lennon says. “And even then, it would take a lot for me to be tempted. It would have to be a club where there is the same substance to the job as I have here.
“That might not be in England, it might be abroad, but it would have to be a hell of an offer to take me away from here.
“I really want to put the club at the forefront of European football again. Now that is a huge challenge because we are up against it financially, but it is one I enjoy.”
Scotland’s football landscape has been altered significantly by the removal of Rangers from the top flight and the routine Glasgow derbies.
“I don’t particularly miss the to-ing and fro-ing,” Lennon admits. “I think everybody misses the build up to the game itself and the raw energy that those matches bring but as a manager I don’t miss them because they are not a nice experience at times.
“When you win, you just feel a pressure release and when you lose you are in a dark place for two or three days. People on the outside, the supporters, love all that theatre. Me? I’m happy without it.”
Lennon is more content, too, with a relative serenity around his private life after the string of threats which earlier endangered his safety. Eight months ago, two men were jailed for five years each after sending suspect packages to Lennon and two other high-profile Celtic supporters.
“I think those guys getting put away in April has become a deterrent for anybody else. Things haven’t been as bad for me, which has made life a lot easier,” Lennon said.
“I think without the Rangers-Celtic thing there has become more banter than anything sinister. At times when the two teams are competing for things there seems to be more of an edge to the sectarian element. This is my job and I love my job.
“There were days when I thought about rapping it but you see the players progressing, you come here close the door and get on with your work. You realise there aren’t many better jobs in the world.
Well looked after
“Do you really need to give it up? I was well looked after security-wise, had to put up with a bit of crap here and there but as long as the security people tell you that you aren’t in imminent danger, you just get on with things.”
Lennon remains more eloquent, erudite and engaging than many have routinely given him credit for. His image as a hot-head is one that irks him.
“If you look at my results over my three years in charge, we have been pretty successful here. I know how to get a winning team on the pitch more times than not and I think that’s the most important thing.
“That doesn’t give me the right to behave in a certain manner but I think I have toned that down as well. There are still times when you will lose your temper, when you don’t think referees are having a good game.
“Now people don’t perceive me as making as big a fuss about it. Other managers do worse than me without getting the negative publicity that I would get.
“This isn’t me bleating about it, it’s just a fact of life. I keep going back to the Celtic manager’s manual; people keep telling me I can’t do this, can’t do that. Where is this green book that I need to read? You stamp your own personality on the job and take it from there.”
Lennon has done that. And some. Just as intriguing as Celtic’s upcoming games with Juventus is the question of how far their manager’s talents and ambitions can take him.