FOR a man whose team were in control of the game for all but the first seven minutes or so, Neil Lennon was a very relieved figure after seeing his Celtic side defeat Hibernian 3-0.
His team may have been firm favourites to add the Scottish Cup to their SPL title, but the manager had felt pressurised, not relaxed, because of that.
Outsiders may have presumed that there was something almost routine about the Parkhead club adding another trophy to their haul but, for Lennon, it was something historic and magical at the same time. This was not just another match, just another win, or even just another trophy. This was the 41-year-old’s chance to become just the third man in the 125-year history of his club, after Jock Stein and Billy McNeill, to win the double as both player and manager.
“They are two icons of the club,” Lennon said after Celtic had lifted the trophy. “When I got the job I wanted to follow in their footsteps and we’re progressing well now. That’s the double and a great European campaign. For a team that gets nipped at a little bit – you know, lack of competition, lack of this – they’re a good side. A very good side, and I hope they get the respect they deserve today. It feels amazing.”
In retrospect, Celtic never looked in danger once they were in front but, for Lennon, watching from the sidelines, there was no such luxury. He had to watch events as they unfolded, and he explained there had been several reasons why he had felt such trepidation.
“I felt so nervous this morning, and all the way during the game, really,” he explained. “Just the weight of expectation riding on the game. Obviously we didn’t want to be the team that broke the hoodoo for Hibs as well and have that thrown at us. Our form at Hampden has been a bit patchy, but the players today were excellent. They controlled the game, played with great maturity and scored three very special goals.
“[Gary] Hooper’s a master – absolute master,” he continued, referring to the striker who grabbed the two first-half goals before Joe Ledley wrapped up the win with a goal late in the second. “His partner in crime [Anthony] Stokes had probably his best game in a Celtic shirt. I had a gut feeling about Stokesy all week, but I didn’t realise he was going to play as well as that. So, I’m delighted with those two. Clean sheet. Scott Brown was huge in midfield, read the game brilliantly, broke up the play, passed it well. Great all-round team performance.
“To win the double as a player was great. But to win it as a manager is just fantastic. It wasn’t really about the competition – it was just all about today. I don’t know why I felt a little bit more nervous than normal – probably because everyone thought it was a shoo-in, a foregone conclusion. And football’s not like that. Hibs had their own incentives to win it. Huge incentives.
“The game’s so unpredictable, you just don’t know what way it’s going to go, how you’re going to settle. We needed Fraser [Forster] to make a very good save early on but, once we got the breakthrough, we looked in control.”
But, even then, Lennon revealed, he did not feel able to relax. Nor at half-time, nor even after Ledley had scored his team’s third. So when precisely did he relax?
“About the 89th minute. You just never know, honestly.”
He added: “I just liked the way we crafted the first two goals. The third goal was a great finish as well. And, once that goes in, you’re like, ‘Well, we’re almost there’. I’m looking at the clock, I think it was about 82, 83 minutes, and I’m thinking ‘I just want it to go now’.
“And I enjoyed the end. I enjoyed the celebrations. So it’s a huge relief. But I’m absolutely thrilled. You’ve got to enjoy these days. I mean, this is my – I don’t know how many finals I’ve been in – four, I think. This is the worst I’ve felt. Probably because we lost a couple of League Cup finals but that’s history now. We learned a few lessons from those games and we looked a very good side out there today.”
It has been suggested that Celtic only looked a good side because the rest of the Scottish game is so poor at present but Lennon believes that, even if there had been any justification in such scepticism early in the season, now, surely, there should be none.
“Domestically, we’re expected to do things but surely no-one could have expected what they did in Europe this season. You know, qualification – people were raising their eyebrows about that. When the group stage came out, people were raising their eyebrows about that. We overcame it all. We were playing the 59th game of a marathon season. And we’ll be back in on the 20th of June, so I hope they enjoy their break, because they fairly deserve it.”
Some of the current squad will leave over the summer, but Lennon would not say who was on the way out. “I don’t know yet. But, if they are to go, it’s obviously very sad from our point of view, but they’ve given the supporters some great nights and great days.”
One player who is definitely not going, however, is Stokes, who revealed last week that he is close to agreeing a new contract that should keep him at Celtic for several more years. “He’s getting another contract because he’s a good player,” Lennon said of the man who crossed for both Hooper’s goals.
“If you look at the two seasons previously, he was 20 goals, and there’s just something about him for me. He looked the last two or three weeks more consistent, better in his overall play. He looks stronger – he looks like he’s found a yard. And that’s all down to the time he had off working really hard and rehabbing well.
“And I just think he’s a goalscorer. I think he’s got seven in 11 or seven in 12 since he came back. He’s just got that something you can’t put a finger on.”