JOCK Stein was controversially denied a knighthood for leading Celtic to their historic European Cup final triumph in Lisbon in 1967. If Neil Lennon can somehow conjure up an improbable and unprecedented comeback for the Parkhead club in Turin tomorrow night, then one of his mentors believes he will be in line for a trip to Buckingham Palace.
John Robertson, assistant-manager to Martin O’Neill when they honed Lennon’s talents as a player with both Leicester City and Celtic, was back in Glasgow yesterday to make the Scottish Cup semi-final draw.
He believes Lennon deserves enormous credit for his performance as Celtic manager so far and insists overturning the 3-0 first-leg deficit against Juventus in the Champions League last-16 tie would eclipse Lisbon as the greatest result in the club’s history.
“If Celtic come back from Italy having qualified, they would want to be giving Neil a knighthood,” said Robertson. “I don’t think too many people could argue with it being the biggest result Celtic have had. With the group they were drawn in this season, a lot of people thought even third place would be beyond them. So reaching the last 16 was a phenomenal achievement.
“They were so unlucky to lose in Barcelona but then came back to Glasgow and beat the greatest team that I’ve ever seen 2-1. Beating Barcelona that night is the second-best result in Celtic’s history. The Lisbon Lions winning the European Cup is obviously special and the best because they came back home with the trophy. But they didn’t have to come back from 3-0 down, did they?”
Former Scotland winger Robertson is thrilled by Lennon’s progress as Celtic manager, observing that the role has previously proved beyond more illustrious names. “People usually build up to managing Celtic with jobs elsewhere first of all,” added Robertson. “The pressure on Neil was massive and for him to come in and do what he has done in his first job in management is really incredible.
“It just shows you the job he has done when you look at other first-timers who tried it, really big names like Liam Brady and John Barnes, and who didn’t succeed. They were great players, but management is a different kettle of fish.
“I always thought Neil was capable of this, though. When he played for us he was always a very intelligent boy, even though he had his escapades, but he knew his football so I thought he could go on and do this job. I always thought he could manage a side. I didn’t have any questions about that. But we have all got little foibles.
“Neil has had a lot to contend with. It has been well documented all the things that have happened to him since he has been manager at Celtic. But he has come through it and to get them out of that group and into the last 16 of the Champions League is incredible.
“I didn’t see the first leg against Juventus as I was at a function that night, but I was shocked when I heard they had lost 3-0. I didn’t see that scoreline coming.
“But teams at this stage of the competition are really top-drawer. Nothing is easy at all. You never know what could happen in Turin. It’s unlikely Celtic could turn it around, but this is a game of football and anything can happen. I don’t think anyone would have tipped Juventus to win 3-0 in Glasgow, even though they are a massive club and a very good side. It would be nice to think Celtic could go over there and do something.” Robertson was on the touchline for Celtic’s previous visit to Turin in 2001, when a controversial late penalty awarded against defender Joos Valgaeren allowed Juventus to snatch a 3-2 group stage victory. It prompted an incensed reaction from manager O’Neill and the resentment felt by Celtic lingers to this day.
“I’ve seen Martin angry a few times,” reflected Robertson. “But he was certainly angry that night and rightly so. I don’t know about anyone else, but we thought it was never a penalty kick.
“We had fought back brilliantly from 2-0 down to level the match, so to lose it that way was a real shame. But the return game at Celtic Park, when we beat them 4-3, was a brilliant night. I especially remember Chris Sutton’s goals and his overall performance. They are great memories. It’s always nice to be back in Glasgow and the five years I spent at Celtic were the happiest of my career in management.”