CELTIC manager Neil Lennon decided to end his four-year reign at the Scottish champions as he was “increasingly frustrated” and “unsettled” at the prospect of staying in charge at a time of diminishing investment in the club, former players and colleagues said last night.
The 42-year-old’s resignation after three successive league titles sent shockwaves through Scottish football, though it is believed he informed the club’s major shareholder, Dermot Desmond, of his decision earlier this week.
Those close to him insisted his decision had not been linked to tumultuous events off the field, as the boss of one half of the Old Firm at the heart of Scotland’s sectarian divide.
In January 2011, the former Northern Ireland internationalist received bullets in the post.
Then in March that year – the same month he was given a four-match touchline ban following a spat with Rangers then assistant manager Ally McCoist – a parcel bomb addressed to him was intercepted by Royal Mail staff.
In May 2011, he was attacked on the touchline at Tynecastle after a supporter leapt from the Hearts end and charged at him.
The following day, he received another bullet in the post.
In February this year, he hinted at the pressures that went with the job, after he was targeted by missile-throwing Aberdeen fans while spectating in the stands at Tynecastle.
Asked if there might come a point when he decided enough was enough, the Celtic boss replied: “I’m sure, yeah. That’s when you’ve got to say, ‘Well, maybe you need to look at something else in your life if you can’t go to a game and enjoy it when you’re out working’.”
Former Glasgow lord provost and Celtic season-ticket holder Alex Mosson, 73, said: “Neil Lennon did a brilliant job, considering the bigoted, racist and sectarian abuse he had to endure from fans of a number of Scottish football clubs.”
He backed the view that Lennon had felt forced to leave because of pressure from the board to sell the club’s star performers. “We won the European Cup – now we are reduced to selling our best players,” he said.
Aiden McGeady, the Republic of Ireland international and Everton player who played both alongside Lennon and under him during his time at Celtic, said he had heard the Northern Irishman was eager to test himself in fresh pastures.
The 28-year-old said: “To be honest, it’s not really come as a surprise because of some things I’ve heard from a few people, that he was a bit unsettled and had probably kind of done all he thought he could do with the club, and maybe was looking for a new challenge down in England somewhere.”
Celtic figures said Lennon’s desire to stay at the helm had waned in the past year due to the club’s comparatively meagre financial resources, allied with the constant pressure and expectation of success that comes with being an Old Firm manager.
Lennon said yesterday that although he had “cherished dearly” the position of manager at the club he once captained, he felt the “time is now right to move on to a new challenge”.
Despite suggestions Lennon had already agreed to take up a new job in the English Premier League, his agent, Martin Reilly, stressed he had “nothing lined up”.
In the meantime, Lennon will help Celtic in appointing his successor, and he called on supporters to rally behind the new manager.
In a statement released by the club, Lennon expressed his pride at leaving the side in “such good health”.
He said: “I have supported Celtic all my life and the club will always be part of me. It was an absolute honour to play for this great club, to captain the team and of course to become Celtic manager, a position which I cherished dearly. However, I feel the time is now right to move on to a new challenge.”
Former Celtic director Dr Michael Kelly suggested the financial situation at Celtic was likely to have been a source of frustration.
But he said the club had been right to cap spending at a time when Rangers, their traditional rivals, remained in the lower leagues.
And he said most supporters would be “looking forward” to having a new manager.
Dr Kelly, who was a Parkhead director from 1990 to 1994, suggested Lennon’s decision had been motivated by being asked to again assemble a team capable of challenging in Europe despite having a reduced playing budget – an approach he described as “sensible.”
He went on: “The whole scenario in Scotland changed when Rangers were no longer a force. Once Celtic didn’t have to compete with them, they didn’t need a higher quality of players to win the league, and it is sensible not to spend that money.”
He added: “Most supporters will agree that the club will now be looking forward to having a new manager, and I think it’s a good thing myself.”
Lennon replaced Tony Mowbray in March 2010, although his first full season ended in disappointment, as Rangers snatched the title. Since then, however, he has won the three league titles – only the fourth Celtic manager to do so – and two Scottish Cups.
There were good results in Europe, too, as Lennon’s team reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League last year, a run that included a famous home win over Barcelona.
Former Celtic striker Andy Walker thought Lennon had quit because they had become a “selling” club.
Last summer, striker Gary Hooper and midfielder Victor Wanyama were transferred to Norwich City and Southampton respectively, for a total of about £17 million.
Walker said: “It has been on the cards for some time. I know that Neil has become increasingly frustrated at the way the club is being managed, in the sense that I think he feels that it is a selling club.
“The idea is that Celtic buy in very cheap and sell at a high market, as they have done with Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama. I think Neil has possibly had enough of that project, if you like. It’s time to move on, and I don’t blame him.”
Charlie Nicholas, a former Celtic and Arsenal striker and now a TV pundit, said even if Lennon ended up at a club in the English Championship – the second tier – it might renew an appetite for the game that has waned in Scotland.
Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell said Lennon had “delivered great success to our supporters domestically and has brought us back to the table in European football”.
He added: “We now embark on a new and exciting chapter for the club. We are sure our fans will give us their usual fantastic support as we aim to bring them more and more success and continue to make Celtic a club they can be proud of.”