THE new suit, the hair neatly in place and the clean-shaven complexion had cod-psychologists reading Neil Lennon’s appearance in Turin the other night as the “job interview look” – a supposition Sky analyst Ray Wilkins seized on after the Celtic manager sought to make a favourable impression with the broadcaster following his team’s last 16 Champions League exit against Juventus.
The reality was altogether more innocent, says the Irishman. “I got fed up wearing the tracksuit. I’ve looked at myself on the telly sometimes and thought ‘Jesus, I could do with a bit of a tidy-up.’ People are looking for things that aren’t there. I don’t know where I’ll be in the future. I could be unemployed. Three months down the line, if we don’t qualify for the Champions League next year, people are going to look at it and wonder what kind of season we’re going to have next year. I don’t look that far ahead.
“I want to win the championship, I want to win the cup, and then, like all seasons, you take stock at the end of it. You have a look at it and ask yourself: ‘Did I do a good job this year? Yes? No? Can we improve?’ Then you take it from there. I’ve got a great job. I’m the manager of Celtic, I keep saying that. Sometimes you pinch yourself. Walking out in front of 60,000 people against the Italian champions: it just doesn’t get any better than that. Walking out at the Nou Camp as manager of Celtic: it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Yet, in terms of Lennon’s standing in the British game, it will never be any better than it is now. Barring a miracle in Munich this week for Arsenal, Lennon will have taken his £15m Celtic team as far in the Champions League as any English side assembled for between ten and 20 times the price.
Celtic won’t beat Barcelona every season. With three qualifying rounds to negotiate each year from mid-July, Celtic won’t necessarily even be in Europe’s most prestigious tournament even to have that shot of glory.
“I am telling you now it is not a given,” he says. “My record [in Europe] before the season wasn’t exactly fantastic. So, yeah, we have done well and it has been a great year but the challenge is, can we replicate that? I am not taking anything for granted. That is my main worry. The timing is so difficult. Everyone says you are going to have an easier route because you are the champions, well, none of those games is easy. None of them.”
The difficulty for Lennon is that Champions League encounters are the only games on which he will be judged. Benfica made the quarter-finals of the competition last season but were squeezed out by Celtic in this campaign, having sold two of their best players in between times. Celtic are now preparing for such departures, yet if his club do not now consistently reach the last 16 then Lennon’s stock will slide. That, of course, isn’t important unless he seeks to cash in on that stock. Short of generating interest from a top-eight English club – and the managerial merry-go-round could just click into motion during the summer for that to happen – a man with a deep emotional attachment to Celtic is unlikely to be tempted from a role within it that he describes as a privilege.
“I am the manager of Celtic. Every day I get up and say that, it’s a nice feeling,” Lennon says. “Until things change I can’t do anything about speculation,” he adds. “I can’t do anything about theories, this, that and the other. I have a job to do here and I am enjoying it. There are things about it that, like all jobs, are difficult. But in the main, it’s fantastic. I’m one of only 17 people to have had the chance. I love what I do.”
For all that there appears a desperate attempt to present the attractiveness of absolutely any English Premier League stop-off as completely overwhelming the job satisfaction that can be obtained in Glasgow, history suggests it is otherwise. The experiences of Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan in the Celtic post easily trump what followed for them down south. It’s proved the same for Alex McLeish at Rangers. Moreover, not one of them bolted to England when their exploits up here were drawing greatest respect from southern circles.
As he prepares to mark three years in charge later this month, Lennon acknowledges that there is a shelf life for managers in the febrile Glasgow environment. He just can speculate what it is. “You never know,” he says. “Fergie [Alex Ferguson] has been doing his job for 20-odd years under the most intense pressure. He looks OK, to be fair to him. But we’ll see. I don’t have a crystal ball. I certainly don’t take things lightly to think I can get up, waltz away and take a job elsewhere. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a very exciting job. It’s a very intense atmosphere. You are under scrutiny all the time, you are being analysed all the time, and it’s hugely rewarding at times. But the one thing you are guaranteed in football is that you get the sack as a manager. So you’ve got to make the opportunity of what you’ve got while you have it. That’s what I intend to do.”
Lennon, should he stay for the next two seasons, will likely become only the third Celtic manager after Jock Stein and Willie Maley to claim four consecutive titles. A Rangers-devoid top flight may ensure that outcome, but that will not result in an asterisk being placed beside his honours list. Meanwhile, trophy success and Champions League progress are not concerns for the vast majority of English top flight managers.