NEIL Lennon has hit back at suggestions his second Scottish Premier League title win as Celtic manager is diminished in significance because of the absence of Rangers from the top flight.
The Parkhead club became Scottish champions for the 44th time in their history on Sunday, securing a second successive SPL crown under Lennon’s guidance with their 4-1 home win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
It is the first Scottish championship ever to be competed for without 54-time record title winners Rangers, following the Ibrox club’s dramatic financial collapse and relocation to the Third Division. But as he reflected on Celtic’s latest triumph, Lennon insisted it was no more straightforward than any of the previous title wins he has been involved in at the club as either a player, coach or manager.
Lennon has contributed to all eight of Celtic’s championship successes since the formation of the SPL 15 years ago. He was a player in the title-winning teams of 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007, was first team coach under Gordon Strachan when it was retained in 2008 and has now managed his club to their 2012 and 2013 celebrations.
Celtic are 15 points clear of nearest challengers Motherwell with four games of the current season remaining, meaning it remains possible they could eclipse the record 21-point winning margin in the SPL set by Rangers back in 2000.
Lennon believes the statistical history of the SPL lends weight to his assertion that Celtic deserve no less credit than previously for topping the pile this season.
“It is never easy [to win the league],” said Lennon. “For me, you would denigrate what they [the players] had done if you said it was easier. It was not easy at all. In terms of competition, in my time this is the eighth championship we have won and five of those were won by 17 or more points with Rangers in the league.”
Lennon, who was speaking to the BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast show yesterday, had his numbers just slightly askew. Celtic have actually won the SPL by 17 points or more on four occasions – in 2002 (18 points), 2004 (17 points), 2006 (17 points) and 2012 (20 points), the latter increased by Rangers’ ten-point penalty for going into administration. But they also won it by comfortable margins in both 2001 (15 points) and 2007 (12 points), with their only close-run success coming in 2008 when they edged out Rangers by three points.
“The only time it has been close is when it goes down to the final game of the season with Rangers,” added Lennon. “The fans desperately miss the edge, the general to and fro between both sets of fans.
“I suppose what everyone misses is that when the results come in, and you have had your result, then you look over what is happening across the road [at Rangers].
“But as far as we were aware or concerned, we knew what was facing us going into this season and we had to get on with it.
“It means everything [to win this title]. It is a privilege to manage the club. I have a really young squad and the way they have performed this season is fantastic. That was the icing on the cake, to take it over the line
in the championship again after last season, and now we have a Scottish Cup final to look forward to off the back of a great European campaign. They have worked wonders this season.”
Celtic’s title win confirms their participation in the Champions League once again next season. Due to Scotland’s falling Uefa co-efficient rating, they will have to negotiate three qualifying rounds this time if they are to play in the lucrative group stage for a second successive campaign.
Lennon is hopeful that some of the revenue his team earned this season by reaching the last 16 of Europe’s elite tournament will be used to keep his squad intact with a new deal for 28-goal top scorer Gary Hooper at the top of his wish list.
“My gut feeling is that he [Hooper] will stay,” added Lennon. “He has been our leading goalscorer for the last three seasons. It is not just the volume of goals, he gets important ones too. When you really need a goal, he pops up with the important one. It’s pivotal that he stays.
“Our policy is to bring young boys in, develop them and sell them on. We have got plenty of assets in the team for the first time in a long, long time.
“But on the back of what we did in the Champions League this season, I don’t think there is the pressure on the board to have to sell now.
“Our preference is to get him [Hooper] a new contract and keep him for a little bit longer.”
Lennon also singled out attacking midfielder Kris Commons for praise as he analysed Celtic’s productive and memorable season. The 29-year-old is among the favourites to be named Scotland’s Player of the Year.
“He has had a fabulous season,” agreed Lennon. “He was plagued with injury last season but he worked really hard during the summer.
“He’s a brilliant player and I played with him towards the latter part of my own career [for Nottingham Forest].
“I knew a lot about him and I was delighted to sign him. He has taken on his football to another level here. He’s been fantastic.”