NEIL Lennon yesterday admitted he is “counting down” to the title. However, he has warned his Celtic players that this is the manager’s prerogative.
They have been handed the task of picking up the quartet of victories, starting against Motherwell this evening, that will clinch a second-successive Scottish Premier League championship.
In recent days at Lennoxtown, where the club’s training academy is set amid the Campsie Fells, Lennon has tweeted about his delight at seeing the sun shining. The temptation is to imagine a bucolic scene as players relax in the knowledge that a 21-point gap exists between them and their nearest rivals.
“The sun is starting to come out and there is a sense the season is unwinding,” acknowledged Lennon yesterday. “But we still have a lot to play for. We have a huge game at the weekend that could shape our season and then we have Juventus to look forward to.”
A Scottish Cup quarter-final tie with St Mirren is bookended by tonight’s clash with Motherwell and next week’s last 16 Champions League second leg meeting with Juventus.
Lennon could not deny that he had studied Celtic’s forthcoming league fixtures in an attempt to calculate when the clinching of the title might be possible. Refreshingly, he eschewed the usual managerial mantra of “taking each game as it comes”. However, his players would be advised not to follow his lead. Rather, they have been urged to collect the victories that will wrap up the league title in the quickest time, with Lennon sensing that teams below Celtic in the league will continue to cut each other’s throats.
The manager also wants to be able to concentrate on the Champions League qualifiers, which begin again in mid-July. The players will be required to report back after the summer in mid-June, meaning that, if Celtic reach the Scottish Cup final on Sunday 26 May, then the players will have little more than a fortnight to recuperate.
Time off will be even shorter for internationalists, with World Cup qualifying matches scheduled for June.
“You are looking at the fixtures that lie ahead and you are looking at Inverness, Motherwell and St Johnstone and Ross County,” said Lennon. “I can’t see all those teams winning all their games. Some of them have to play each other as well.
“You are coming to the stage where you are counting it down,” he added. “But that is for me to do and not the players. I’m happy with the way things are going. There is no sign of complacency about them.”
Nor is there evidence that Lennon is ready to rest on his laurels. He stressed how vital it is to “maintain” the level of interest provided by Celtic’s involvement in the Champions League group stages this season, with the continued absence of Rangers from the league fixture list meaning there is an extra onus on reaching the same stage of the competition next season.
“The Champions League has driven things for everyone,” he said. “It’s a concern that if you don’t qualify [for the group stages] what’s the season going to be like further down the line? So that’s why our priority in the short-term is going to be qualification again.”
“We have 43,000 season ticket holders just now which, compared to a lot of other clubs, is huge,” he added. “If we can get anywhere near that for next season, it will be brilliant.
“They are not coming [to every game] but they are paying for their tickets. I am sure there will be a lot of people questioning if they want to renew their season tickets or not. We can’t do any more than what we are doing, getting to the last 16 of the Champions League with a squad that was built with not a lot of money.
“We may be able to invest a little bit heavier in the summer and, hopefully, that will attract a few more people coming to games.”
Lennon revealed that he hadn’t yet spoken with Peter Lawwell, the club chief executive, about the funds he can expect to be at his disposal, but the manager will have noted that Champions League involvement helped Celtic post a near-£15million profit in the second half of last year. “We have a board meeting in April and we may touch on it then, or we may not speak until the season’s over,” said Lennon. “But we are looking at players for next season. That’s the objective now – to go out and find them.”
Lennon is mindful that nothing is guaranteed. A good year last year might have to pay for a less successful one this year. “You have to be careful that you don’t get blasé about it and say I want £4m here and I want £5m there,” he said. “If we bring a player in for £3m or £4m, there has to be a resale value. Further down the line, we have to be able to sell him for a profit. I would imagine that would be the remit for any players that we do bring in.”