Although he is becoming used to the enormous burden of expectation that bears down on him each summer, Neil Lennon admits that the pressure of ensuring Celtic qualify for the Champions League still takes a toll.
Lennon was speaking on the eve of Celtic’s latest “crunch match” in a set of Champions League qualifiers that would be a rigorous examination of any manager’s mettle. However, Lennon has it particularly hard. Not only are Celtic’s finances geared around progression in the competition, but their success in reaching the last 16 stage of the Champions League last season has meant that failure to make even the group stage this time around would be doubly hard to accept.
Words such as “imperative” littered Lennon’s briefing in Sweden yesterday as he looked ahead to tonight’s second-leg encounter with IF Elfsborg at the Boras Arena. He knows what is at stake as Celtic seek to defend a 1-0 lead secured at Parkhead last midweek, courtesy of a late goal by Kris Commons.
The ability to return to the transfer market could hinge on tonight’s result, as Lennon seeks to re-strengthen a squad that looks set to be further depleted by the imminent sale of Kelvin Wilson to Nottingham Forest.
Elfsborg manager Jorgen Lennartsson was not indulging in mind games when he stressed yesterday that the pressure is all on Celtic. It is something that Lennon is alert to – and almost every minute of his waking day is committed to ensuring that knowledge of how vital tonight’s clash is does not serve to hamper the players.
Lennon yesterday described himself as verging on “obsessive compulsive disorder” in his approach, but then such behaviour did not harm such managerial titans of the game as Bill Shankly.
Those who read Red or Dead, the new novel based on the Liverpool manager’s life by David Peace, will quickly recognise that such obsessive traits were part of Shankly’s make-up. Indeed, he has been described as the “ultimate obsessive”, to the extent that he would make sure an empty bus followed the team bus on trips to Wembley in case the one in front suffered a mechanical breakdown. Similarly, Lennon has left nothing to chance, although he did grimly point out that “anything can happen on any given night”. However, he has been working night and day to ensure that Celtic give themselves the best chance to progress against a side who are no pushovers on their own artificial surface. Celtic trained on their own astroturf pitch at Lennoxtown on Monday in a bid to be prepared.
“All my focus in the last couple of days has been on this game, and it’s imperative we get through,” said Lennon. “I know that. You are in that bubble that I spoke about last year. For the next three or four weeks, you are in that bubble.
“I wasn’t feeling the pressure, but I am starting to a wee bit now – and I shouldn’t be,” he added. That said, he described himself as “a little more relaxed” than he was last year, when Celtic, and perhaps even Lennon, could ill afford some more setbacks on a par with those Europa League qualifying eliminations suffered in previous seasons against Sion and Utrecht, clubs that are now etched in the consciousness of Celtic fans and are associated with dark times. In the event, the team performed nervelessly to negotiate ties with Helsinki and Helsingborgs last year and progress to the group stage, where they again distinguished themselves.
“You just want to get everything right,” stressed Lennon. “You become a bit sort of OCD in your approach. You think you have got your preparations right, then you ask yourself: ‘Have I got that right. Did I do that?’ Sometimes you over think things, but that’s probably not a bad thing.”
Among the worries that have emerged over the last few days is the knowledge that Mo Bangura could yet have a say in the tie. Indeed, some believe the striker, on loan at Elfsborg from Celtic, is almost destined to play a significant part this evening, after going against the wishes of his parent club to partake in the tie.
“You always worry about it,” said Lennon. “Football throws up these coincidences, little quirks. He had a tough job at Celtic Park but I think, if he plays, he will have more of a free role.
“But I think we’ve got the players to handle him. It’s not just Mo I’m worried about. There are three or four players who can hurt us. Set pieces are important as well. But I’m looking at Samaras, Forrest, Stokes, Commons, Watt ... all these players are capable of scoring, so we’ll have plenty for them to think about as well.”
“You think, well, you’ve done it once, you know what it’s about,” added Lennon, with reference to his experience at this level. “I always think, as a manager, you weigh up the worst possible scenarios and then anything after that’s a bonus. You just think about what could go wrong, how to rectify it, how the game will go.
“You think of the negative things and how you could change things. I’m going into the game, I wouldn’t say confident, but in a good frame of mind.”
Lennon can take comfort from the knowledge that just one goal for Celtic tonight would mean Elfsborg would need to score three times to progress.
“Even if they score first, it doesn’t change anything,” said Lennon. “The tie’s even again. If we can score in the 90 minutes, Elfsborg have to get another two.”