CELTIC’S victory over Spartak Moscow on Wednesday added another layer to the growing pile of evidence which suggests that Neil Lennon may be in possession of the one asset Sir Alex Ferguson has always considered indispensable to any manager in pursuit of glory.
It is, unsurprisingly, that curiously enigmatic concept known as luck.
Ever since Napoleon stated his pronounced preference for “lucky generals” over any who might have been top of their class in military academy, a fast-moving and ever more competitive world has made more exacting demands of those with ambition to succeed at the top of their chosen fields.
Scotland’s own habitual conqueror at Old Trafford has recognised an inescapable truth from the very outset of what would become the most decorated career in the history of the game: without the immeasurable assistance of good fortune at the precise moment it is most needed, he would have been as well remaining a publican.
“You can’t do it without luck,“ Ferguson maintains. “If you look back, you’ll see that all the great managers had it. And nobody should ever feel insulted if he’s accused of being lucky. It’s as precious a gift as you could have.”
The Manchester United manager is in a position to reflect on any number of instances in which personal triumphs could not be rationally explained. Unquestionably, the most spectacular would be the night at Camp Nou in 1999 when United, having taken second prize behind Bayern Munich for the preceding 90 minutes, scored twice in three minutes of stoppage time to come from behind and give Ferguson victory in the most coveted event of all, the Champions League final.
Such experiences have prepared him for the disappointments and failures that are also unavoidable in an imperfect profession. When Jose Mourinho gave a practical demonstration of his burgeoning good luck at Old Trafford in 2004 – his Porto side snatching an injury-time winner thanks to an aberration by United goalkeeper Tim Howard – Ferguson was able to accept the setback with an astounding equanimity.
“Well, we’ve done it often enough to others, so it’s certain that one day it’s going to happen to us,” he said. That occasion – Porto would go on from there to add the Champions League to the Uefa Cup they had denied Celtic in Seville the previous year – was one in a sequence which confirmed that Mourinho himself was destined to join that elite band of winners for whom the most formidable obstacles are there for the sole purpose of being overcome.
When Jock Stein’s Dunfermline, in his first managerial post, took a battering from Celtic in two matches for the 1961 Scottish Cup final and still emerged from the second with a 2-0 victory, it was nothing less than an announcement of his arrival as a natural-born winner.
When he took over Celtic in March, 1965, he made them Scottish Cup winners within eight weeks of his arrival with an impossibly dramatic 3-2 success against Dunfermline in the final. The significance of the result is underlined by the events that preceded and followed the Hampden triumph.
In the two matches immediately before, Celtic lost 6-2 at Falkirk and 2-1 at home to Partick Thistle. Four days after the final, they lost 5-1 – to Dunfermline. As a declaration of Stein’s indefinable penchant for winning the games that truly mattered, this was as unmissable as sky writing.
Lennon’s natural brightness and absorptive intelligence – recognised by anyone paying attention while in his company, but almost certainly surprising to the wider public – are clearly the foundation stones of a promising second career, following his success as a player.
But his credentials as a lucky manager are not only authenticated by his team achieving some improbable results against seemingly better equipped opponents, but by one largely forgotten, yet spookily significant, incident in the course of their progress through the group stage of the Champions League.
Goals of the type that gave Barcelona victory over Celtic in Spain with virtually the last kick of the ball almost invariably bring fate-changing consequences. Watching Lennon’s side straining for a winner against Spartak as admirably as they have throughout the campaign, it was impossible to escape the thought that that injury-time defeat at Camp Nou was about to cause their elimination.
But even that seemingly haunting misfortune was overcome by the penalty kick converted by Kris Commons. In the event, the loss to Barca in that third match of the series merely cost the Scottish champions first place in the group. Given the range of prospective opponents in the last 16 (both group winners and runners-up), it is unlikely that finishing on top would have either enhanced or diminished their prospects of further progress.
It would also be foolhardy, at this point, to venture any kind of prediction in relation to Celtic’s future in the tournament.
With the first of the knockout matches still two months off, all manner of eventualities could be visited upon clubs, including the loss of important players to injury or transfer (with the two richest in Europe, Chelsea and Manchester City, both eliminated, none of the others is in the business of turning down a large cash transaction).
But, even if their supporters’ notion of going to Wembley, currently enshrined in song, seems fanciful, there is no reason why they should not look for encouraging portents. They will find the most promising of all in the realisation that their back-to-back encounters with Barcelona ended in an aggregate 3-3 draw. And it is one of life’s few certainties that not one among them will have missed the detail that, on both occasions, the great Catalan team secured their results with injury-time goals.