NEIL Lennon and Brendan Rodgers have come together on summer friendly duties before, when Celtic visited Swansea City two years ago.
But that was before Lennon had proved himself a worthy steward of one of football’s most popular brands, and before the Rodgers brand had gone viral.
Lurgan native Lennon and Rodgers, from the Antrim coast, did not grow up together but they have come a long way on very different journeys in the game, and could yet lock horns on more serious business than that which brings them to Dublin on 10 August for a friendly that has more value than most.
Lennon, an early bookmakers’ favourite to replace David Moyes at Everton who will probably have to exercise a little patience before getting the kind of opportunity that landed in Rodgers’ lap, has watched intently his compatriot’s formative work at Liverpool, where he is currently the seventh-longest-serving Premier League boss after just one season.
Appearing at Aviva Stadium yesterday to promote the “Dublin Decider”, Lennon praised Rodgers for negotiating a managerial minefield laid in his path by the misadventures of Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s most gifted and most self-destructive presence.
“As a young coach in my first development year at Celtic, I went to see Brendan at Reading,” said Lennon. “I spent a couple of days with him. You had Brian McDermott there as well. Brian was chief scout. I had two or three great days there and learned a lot. I spoke to Brendan and learned his philosophy on the game. He had a great coaching time under Jose Mourinho and then did great things at Swansea and is now progressing Liverpool in the right way.
“It couldn’t be easy for him, thrust into the limelight like that, but he has handled things on the field and some serious things off the field. I think he’s dealt with them very very well.”
For the alert Lennon, as many lessons can be learned from afar as from the astroturf where coaches come together. Focusing on Rodgers’ handling of Suarez, who only this week told Uruguayan journalists that he had been poorly supported by Anfield both before and after he received a ten-game ban, Lennon drew a comparison with rugby to illustrate how football can be prone to blowing controversies out of proportion.
“He’s a brilliant player,” he said of Suarez. “I was watching the Lions last week and Owen Farrell got hooked by a Barbarian right on the jaw – he hooked him. More is made out of Suarez taking a nibble out of Ivanovic than the player hooking Farrell.
“I think there has to be certain perspective put on things when it comes to football. We know it’s a worldwide sport and they’re role models and they have responsibility. But in terms of Suarez, you take him to one side and say ‘look, you’ve got to behave yourself’. Obviously it wasn’t the first time he’d done it, but I think the ban was extensive to say the least.”
This was the second time in 24 months Lennon had visited Dublin to promote a return trip with his team later on the same summer. Diplomatically, he is doing as good a job exhibiting the Celtic brand among its outer environs as steering the team through challenges of varying severity at home and abroad.
Clearly relaxed about his future and the opportunities he will have to grow his team in the transfer market, he contemplated with no little relish the August meeting with Liverpool, which will come several weeks after Celtic’s initial Champions League qualifying exertions and one week after the first game of their title defence. Rodgers has also assured promoters that he will bring a serious team to Dublin.
“This will be our second game,” added Lennon. “We play the first weekend in the SPL season and then this is the second weekend.
“We did exactly the same last year and it was between European qualifiers as well. It worked for us last year, we feel it will be beneficial for the players in terms of playing a top-quality side.”
“We’ll only be two weeks into the season. It’s fantastic preparation for the European qualifiers. We’ll already be in the second round if we get through the first round. Players will need games.”