NEIL Lennon is convinced it will be a great occasion when two of his predecessors as Celtic manager clash in the Euro 2016 qualifiers – particularly as the Group D match between Scotland and Ireland is set to be played at Parkhead.
But, while the current boss of the champions paid tribute to Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill for the influence they continue to have on his career, he explained he did not envy them the pressure they will be under when the game comes around on Friday, 14 November.
“It’s probably two fixtures they could have done without, because it will all be loaded up to be about the two of them,” said Lennon, who played for Celtic under O’Neill and was brought back to the club as first-team coach by Strachan. “It’s an intriguing game. It’s set up for two cracking games and I’m glad I’m not managing – the pressure on both the guys will be huge. I think they have a healthy respect for each other and I don’t think anything will boil over.
“I don’t think there’s a lot between the teams now and there will be plenty of comparisons between the two of them with them both being very successful here. It will be interesting to see how they both approach it with the media and in the games as well. If the game is at Celtic Park it will be a big deal for the two of them. It will be special and the atmosphere in the stadium will be fantastic. It will be like one of the European nights. It’s an added ingredient to what will be two very important games for both countries.”
The venues for that match and Scotland’s home game against Georgia in October have yet to be officially confirmed, but with Hampden out of commission following the Commonwealth Games, the Scottish Football Association is understood to have chosen Ibrox for the earlier game then Celtic Park for the Ireland match. Provided that is the case, Celtic captain Scott Brown, Anthony Stokes, Leigh Griffiths, Charlie Mulgrew and James Forrest could all be turning out for their national teams at their club ground.
“That would be fascinating,” Lennon added. “There are so many interesting aspects to the games. All of them will have familiar surroundings if the game is at Celtic Park.”
As the longest-serving manager in the Scottish Premiership, Lennon can no longer be considered an apprentice. But he said that O’Neill and Strachan remained men he could turn to for advice.
“They are probably the only two men, because they are the two who know better than anyone how to handle the job and what you are going to confront. They’re always just a phone call away. They are pleased for me with the way things have gone. They should take something from it, because they’ve had a huge influence on my career.
“Martin just said I should trust my instinct,” he continued when asked the best piece of advice he had received from his fellow-Northern Irishman. “He’s always got a joke and is always very good at keeping your feet on the ground. The respect I have for him is immense and that will never leave me.
“I’ve had several conversations with Gordon, because he comes here to watch games and we chat sporadically on the phone or face to face. I remember seeing him the day of the cup final last year and my stomach was churning.
“I asked him: ‘Do you go through the same thing?’ He said: ‘Absolutely’, so I didn’t feel that I was a freak – it happens to everyone. You need those wee crumbs of comfort from them every now and again when you are feeling it a wee bit.”
Meanwhile, Stokes believes that Griffiths, his new strike partner at Celtic, may become a real handful for the Ireland defence in the two qualifying games. Griffiths has been omitted from the last few Scotland squads, but Stokes, who is back in favour in Ireland since O’Neill replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, is sure the former Hibs player can force his way back into contention.
“No disrespect to any of his other clubs, but he’s on a better platform here,” Stokes said. “That, if he performs well, gives him a greater chance to also play for Scotland. The way we play we’re slightly different to each other. I’ve noticed that every time I turn, he’s making runs or closing up to allow me to play one-twos with him. It’s just worked well for us.”
While Stokes is used to scoring goals at Parkhead, to get one for his country on his home ground would be especially satisfying, particularly as he has yet to score for Ireland at senior level. “It’s something I’ve thought about many nights,” he said of that lack of international goals. “It’s something that I want to do, but I need to keep myself in the squad and keep pushing for a place, because there’s a lot of competition. They’ll be two special nights.”