WHAT does a football manager do when he gets a couple of weeks off? In Neil Lennon’s case, he spends part of it seizing the opportunity to soak up information from some of his more experienced peers.
As he prepares for the resumption of SPL football today following the competition’s winter break, Lennon appeared both relaxed and refreshed as he met the media at Lennoxtown yesterday, having spent the early part of the week attending the English League Managers’ Association (LMA) conference at St George’s Park.
There will certainly be little opportunity for Lennon to take time out over the next few weeks, today’s visit of Hearts to Celtic Park kicking off a hectic schedule of six matches over the next 22 days in all three domestic competitions.
But although his pursuit of an SPL, League Cup and Scottish Cup treble is the immediate priority, one assignment inevitably dominates Celtic’s landscape as they enter the second half of a potentially momentous campaign.
The Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus, the first leg of which at Celtic Park on 12 February is already sold out, was also an inevitable topic of conversation when Lennon mixed with the great and good at the LMA’s inaugural European Managers and Coaches Forum.
It also provided Lennon with a significant source of encouragement that Celtic are capable of upsetting the odds against the Italian champions to reach the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite tournament.
None other than Fabio Capello, the former England manager who was in charge of Juventus from 2004 to 2006, believes it is a tie Celtic can win.
“Capello spoke to me down there and he was very complimentary,” said Lennon. “I’m not going to give too much away, but he thinks we’ve got half a chance against Juventus.
“He gave me a few titbits on them and he obviously knows the Italian teams very well. Roy Hodgson was very good with me on that as well.
“It was just great to mix with those guys for a couple of days and chew the fat over a few things. You find out everyone is in the same boat, they are all under pressure in their own jobs for varying reasons. Sir Alex Ferguson, Howard Wilkinson and Richard Bevan, who organised the forum, are worried about the way new managers are being fast-tracked a lot these days.
“They are trying to implement a culture where a manager comes in and has already done a year with development teams. They used Gareth Southgate as an example of what can go wrong – he didn’t have his Pro-Licence when he got the Middlesbrough job a few years ago and didn’t really know what he was getting into. That’s one of the main cruxes of going into management, trying to be as prepared as you can be.”
Also in attendance at the forum was Nigel Adkins, whose dismissal by Southampton yesterday has been the subject of widespread condemnation.
Lennon added his voice to the sympathetic chorus and admits it would make him think twice about any offer to manage in England which may come his way in the future.
“Why would you go there?,” he said. “Although it’s not just confined to England. How long do you keep your job in Italy? Where is the stability at those clubs? I suppose if anybody does come in for you, you are going to have to do a bit of background on the history of the owner and the history of his sacking record.
“Nigel was at the forum this week and obviously didn’t see what was coming to him. It was one of the topics brought up, funnily enough, the low percentage of managers, particularly first time managers, who reach 250 games in a job. It’s a very difficult thing to do these days, particularly when you have owners who see the game differently.
“I don’t understand the logic of Nigel’s sacking. He’s just gone to Chelsea this week and got a draw, he won the game before that. He’s had back-to-back promotions. I’m not too sure what more Nigel could have done.
“Southampton are out of the bottom three, doing very well all things considered. Nigel brought the players in, he’s been working with them for the last six or seven months. Now, all of a sudden, he is sacked and they are bringing in a new guy. All that does is cause instability throughout the club.
“The most important people are the players and they must be thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’. Especially off the back of a great result at Stamford Bridge where they showed unbelievable character to come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. That must have been a huge shot in the arm for them, so I just don’t understand the thinking behind it at all.”
Lennon, who could give a debut today to Israeli international defender Rami Gershon as he begins his loan spell from Standard Liege, is encouraged by the condition of his squad after the break which saw them spend a week of warm weather training in Marbella.
“It absolutely reinforced my belief the break is a good idea,” he said. “Although I’ll let you know for sure in a week or so. If we lose our next three games, I’ll think it was a terrible idea!
“It was a chance to get the players refreshed both physically and mentally, to get some players back from injury sooner than they would have been otherwise. Everyone has found it beneficial to a certain extent. It’s going to be a very heavy schedule for us over the next few weeks, with an international week in there as well. So it emphasises that the break came at a really good time for us.”
Lennon is hopeful new Scotland manager Gordon Strachan will use his players sparingly in the international against Estonia at Pittodrie on 6 February, just six days before Celtic’s first leg match against Juventus. Lennon is thrilled to see his former manager land the Scotland job.
“I’ll speak to Gordon, or I might just ignore his calls!” he said. “But I understand his situation and I’m sure he understands mine. We’ll have a chat in the next few days. He knows how important the Juventus games are but I understand how important the game against Estonia will be for him as well.
“I’m absolutely delighted for him. You could see how much it meant to him at his press conference. He texted me on Monday and told me not to tell anyone but I was delighted for him.
“I think it’s a great appointment. I am biased but I thought he was the outstanding candidate and he will command respect from the players. He is very shrewd tactically, as he’s proved in Europe before, and having a break from the game has reinvigorated him.
“His TV work will have given him access to see a lot of top players at Champions League level as well and with Mark McGhee coming in to assist him, there is vast experience as well.”