BY THE time he joined his players in the Lennoxtown canteen just before 5pm yesterday to watch the Champions League group stage draw unfold, Neil Lennon had calmed down a little.
The Celtic manager’s emotions had been laid bare on Wednesday night, first in deed when he sprinted down the touchline to celebrate the dramatic late winner against Shakhter Karagandy with his players, then in words as he launched a coruscating attack on the negativity he felt was unjustly aimed at his team in the wake of their first leg defeat to the Kazakh side.
To some, his reaction was seen as a direct response to criticism from either pundits or punters. For others, his comments about not “getting any help” were viewed as a swipe at the club’s board for the level of backing he received in the transfer market.
Lennon wasn’t keen to elaborate yesterday, preferring to digest and savour a Champions League group which will see his team try to go toe-to-toe with European football heavyweights Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. “People can interpret it any way they like,” he shrugged when asked about his comments. “That’s up to them. I know we have been working very hard to bring players in. What I didn’t want to do was go to the last couple of days of the window but that’s where we are and what we have to do.”
So, having previously made it clear he did not feel short-changed by his board, was he simply letting off steam with his immediate post-match critique?
“Yes, that pressure is huge for me,” he replied. “It wasn’t a nice week, it was a very difficult week. Actually, when the game started I was good, I felt good about the team and the way we prepared them.
“But the week leading up to it was very difficult because there is just so much riding on it. It’s a complete game changer for everyone, in terms of players, myself, my backroom team. People don’t see the amount of work that we do. We don’t just turn up at nine and finish at three, we’re here day in, day out, watching footage, looking at players, looking at our own team and doing what we can to get there.
“Because it’s so early in the season as well, your whole season could be affected by one game, either for the better or worse. The scenario of not being in the Champions League after last night was there. You think about it, you weigh up all the scenarios and it’s not a good place.
“Getting there changes everything. Financially for the players, for the club. Football wise, the glamour, the reputation, the exposure, the experience, just that feeling, the gravitas of being a Champions League manager, of being a Champions League club, the gravitas of being a player in the Champions League. It just makes you walk that little bit taller.
“It makes last night more satisfying in terms of where we are, with the pressure that we’ve been under the last six or seven weeks. I mean, I’ve been living in a bubble for six or seven weeks now. I’ve not spoken to anyone properly because you’re thinking about Cliftonville, you’re thinking about Elfsborg, you’re thinking about Shakhter Karagandy.
“That was going back to more or less April time when we gave some of the players time off because the close season was going to be so short. To take it right to the 92nd minute of the last qualifier – I do not want to go through that again. It’s not nice, it really isn’t.
“The pressure, I think, is off now. We can really go and enjoy this. I don’t think people can have too much expectation, although there will be some of our supporters who will still realistically think that we can qualify and win the thing.”
Even in a season when the final will be played in Lisbon for the first time since Celtic’s triumph there in 1967, that is surely a fairytale too far for the Parkhead club.
Lennon was hoping for a different outcome yesterday, nursing hopes of a career-first trip to the Bernabeu Stadium and a pairing with Real Madrid. But a rematch with Barcelona is a decent alternative, while Milan and Ajax also carry great resonance.
“Barcelona speaks for itself,” said Lennon. “Milan are in a bit of a transitional phase, but they looked very strong in beating PSV Eindhoven in the play-off round. Ajax are a consistently good team domestically and superb in Europe. They pipped Manchester City in their group last year. So we have it all to do, but there is so much to look forward to as well.
“I did want to get Real Madrid, because they are the only one of the big teams I’ve never played in a competitive game at European level. I’ve never been to the Bernabeu either. It looked a really good group to be in. Manchester United’s group would have been a decent one too.
“But the draw is fabulous. In terms of logistics, the travelling is no problem for ourselves and the supporters. In terms of stadiums, you couldn’t ask for three better in Europe. I’ve been here for 13 years and been involved in I don’t know how many group stages as a player and now manager. It’s just fantastic.
“When you look at some of teams in Pot 2 and Pot 3, you wonder why they are ranked ahead of us. In the end, it’s all down to the co-efficient that we are in Pot 4 and it’s a very tough group.”
Having taken so many big scalps at Celtic Park in European competition over the years, Lennon’s men will hope their cauldron in the east end of Glasgow can have a say in the outcome of the group once more.
“When people talk about the intimidation of the crowd at Celtic Park, I think it’s more about what the crowd do for our players in terms of galvanising them and giving them energy,” added Lennon.
“I don’t think these big teams really get intimidated by atmospheres. They have travelled all over the world. I think a lot of teams actually look forward to coming here, but they are wary of what our supporters do for our team as well.”