BIRTHDAY wishes, rather than anniversary greetings, were uppermost on Neil Lennon’s mind yesterday.
But if 25 March will always be most prominent in his thoughts as it is his father Gerry’s birthday, the date also holds significant personal significance for the Celtic manager.
It was four years ago that aspiring coach Lennon, then in charge of the club’s development squad, was placed in interim charge of the first team following the sacking of Tony Mowbray.
Tonight at Firhill, Lennon will mark his 220th game in charge of Celtic as they close in on their third successive championship triumph under his guidance.
“It’s been a pretty good four years, I have to say,” he reflected. “I don’t get carried away or get too excited about it but I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done so far. It’s my dad’s birthday too, so it’s a double celebration for me.
“We have made significant progress in that period which is probably more pleasing than anything else. We’re on the brink of another championship which, again, means a very exciting few days ahead for us.”
Lennon has come a considerable distance since those initial days in the role, which included the shocking 2-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Ross County at Hampden which he feared would scupper his prospects of being handed the reins on a permanent basis.
Now 42, he believes he has matured as Celtic manager and modified the way he conducts himself on match days.
“It was the exuberance of being in the job for the first time and wanting to make an impression,” he said. “I look at Tim Sherwood at Spurs at the minute and I see similarities to the way I was when I first got the Celtic job.
“Certainly, behaviour-wise and with experience you grow into it and are maybe not as histrionic on the touchline as you used to be, although you are still as competitive as ever.
“The hurt still doesn’t go away when you lose games and the competitive juices are still there when you’re on the touchline, but certainly when you’re looking at yourself from the outside, there have definitely been changes. That day when we lost to Ross County, I was thinking ‘Well, that’s certainly put a dent in it’.
“Like all things in football, people are very quick to make decisions, but thankfully the people upstairs took everything into consideration and still gave me the job at the end of the season.
“I think the manager’s job has become more and more difficult because you’re under so much analysis. The social media side of things has really gone into overdrive. Everyone has an opinion. Your personality traits, your tactics – everything is discussed to the nth degree.
“I’m not talking about the press, because I think it’s been pretty good over the four years. I’m talking about the people out there in cyberworld who analyse you to death.”
An avid student of other managers, Lennon takes inspiration from how the leading lights in his profession have coped with adversity to enjoy longevity in the technical area.
“It takes incredible reserves of inner strength at times,” he added. “I always look at those managers – Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho – who, although they have had great success, they have had huge disappointments as well. It always fascinates me how they bounce back.
“Over the 27 years when Sir Alex was in charge of Manchester United, you always think about the great achievements he had, but there were huge disappointments – two Champions League finals, losing league titles on the last day to Man City and Blackburn – and I often wonder how he felt.
“Everyone thinks about the club, but the amount of work you put into it just to lose the title on the last day or lose a major cup final – how did he feel about that?
“It’s a really desolate place as a manager sometimes but he showed great inner strength to come back stronger the next year. Despite all the outside criticisms, outside influences and negative influences, he seemed to be able to let it bounce off him. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect you sometimes, but you overcome it.
“It’s a pride thing. Your team is you, an extension of you on the pitch and when you lose it dents your pride. When you win it goes the other way, and at a big club you are expected to win, the expectation level gets bigger and bigger every year. Sometimes unrealistically.”
Lennon is satisfied with the relentless manner his team have marched towards the Premiership title this season, losing just one game so far.
“It speaks volumes for the players,” he said. “There is an apathy towards us sometimes from outwith the club but I’ve got to ignore that and put a team out that satisfies me as well as the Celtic public.
“I’ve found it a little bit more difficult this year compared to previous seasons because of the quality we lost last summer and then trying to replace that quality and build again. But we are now starting to see the green shoots coming through of the players who came in. They are showing their qualities. That augurs well for next season but I would still like to strengthen in one or two positions. The squad might be a little bit more competitive. At times I think we are a little thin in some areas, in terms of quality. But that’s the challenge that lies ahead.
“I think we are playing very well at the minute and I’m enjoying watching my team. The likes of Leigh Griffiths will get better, as will Nir Biton and Stefan Johansen and there’s more to come from Virgil van Dijk. It’s looking good for the rest of this season and going into next season as well.
“Some days I think my four years has gone quickly and other days I think it’s been much longer. You always have regrets but you can’t have the perfect scenario. If you won every game and every trophy then people would take it for granted.
“Over the piece we’ve got to be pretty content with where we are. We’re excited about this week but to go to Partick Thistle with a full house under the floodlights will be like the old days and pretty special. The players are really looking forward to each game now.”