COULD he have scripted it better? Neil Lennon has now joined Willie Maley, Jock Stein and Gordon Strachan in the illustrious roll call of Celtic managers who have won three successive league titles.
And he managed to etch his name into history by barely having to leave his own doorstep. Here was Lennon bringing it all back home in more than one sense.
This is Lennon’s patch. ‘This is Firhill, this is our home,’ bellowed the Tannoy man just prior to the game. Lennon might have cracked a wry smile. A long-time native of the West End, he could have walked here had he wished to do so. He already has some good memories associated with this ground even before their stylish confirmation as champions last night.
Lennon once admitted to being taken aback when receiving a round of applause from the Thistle fans while playing a game here shortly after the death threat he received prior to an international where he was due to skipper Northern Ireland. Here he felt the love again but from the more customary direction of the Celtic support as he became the member of an exclusive club of Parkhead managers.
There was little need for circumspection, no need for caution. The street sellers were hawking their wares before kick-off, with three in a row flags particularly popular. Celtic are now no longer champions-elect. They are champions 2013/14. The claim on so much of the merchandise being sold is now a valid one after a resounding 5-1 win, crowned by late goals from Anthony Stokes and Kris Commons.
Even if it hadn’t been here, it was likely to have happened on Saturday against Ross County, which would have provided some symmetry. This coronation has been coming since a narrow 2-1 win over the Dingwall side on the opening day of the league campaign. Since before a ball was even kicked, if we are being honest. But that shouldn’t detract completely from the achievement.
There are some who contend that this is Lennon’s finest title win of the three and the statistics bear this out. Last night’s victory was Celtic’s 27th win in 31 games; they have been unerringly consistent. The campaign has also included 14 successive league games without conceding although Celtic were frustrated in their bid to build towards another record attempt last night when substitute Christie Elliott scored a consolation goal for Thistle, meaning a fresh run of blank sheets ends at three games. But that was one minor blight on the occasion. Another was the ending when Celtic players did not return to the field after the away supporters failed to live up to their side of the bargain when they invaded the pitch at the final whistle.
But Lennon will focus on the positives from the season. There is the added bonus of Stefan Johansen, who scored Celtic’s third goal last night, stepping in at the tail-end of the campaign. The Norwegian looks like he could be a major addition ahead of the Champions League qualifiers.
Leigh Griffiths has added the expected ‘spark’ – although he did not get on the scoresheet last night – and Scott Brown has enjoyed an injury-free season. The skipper was a powerful inspiration again yesterday – Lennon’s lieutenant in a season where he has let himself down only once, against Barcelona.
Seven of last night’s starting XI featured in Lennon’s first title win and hope for the future was supplied by the 17-year-old Liam Henderson, who came on at half-time and scored his first goal for the club within five minutes.
The strike was expertly finished into the corner and was given extra charge by the fact it was scored under the noses of the already partying Celtic supporters. This was one of the most essential tickets of the season as Thistle remained admirably determined to let their own supporters have the majority of the stadium. It meant the visiting fans had to scramble for tickets and more than a few were left disappointed outside the stadium, where a surprisingly large police presence – which included a steel cordon – had gathered. Fortunately, the match passed without incident save for a few rogue Celtic fans in the home stand. The outcome seemed in little doubt from as early as the fourth minute, when Stokes headed Celtic into the lead.
Celtic can now wind up the season at their leisure. Unlike last season, however, there is something missing, and Celtic’s poor record in both domestic cup competitions provides reason to withhold some of the acclaim for Lennon. There is no Scottish Cup final to look forward to due to the disappointing exit at the hands of Aberdeen. Defeat in the League Cup to Morton, also at home, is just as difficult to explain now, when the Greenock club lie so helplessly stranded at the bottom of the Championship, as it was on the night. Of course, this is an era when Celtic simply have to win the league and so the accompanying disappointments in the domestic cup competitions are setbacks that Lennon knows must be taken into account when evaluating his worth.
But no-one can claim Lennon has not achieved more than anyone could have expected in the days when he succeeded Tony Mowbray. Few thought he would turn out to be anything other than a stop-gap and this seemed to be underlined by a shocking defeat to Ross County in the 2010 Scottish Cup semi-final. Successes such as last night prompt memories of spotting Lennon in the queue for complimentary tickets at Cappielow when Celtic played Morton in an earlier round under Mowbray.
While Strachan seemed eager to mentor him, Mowbray’s plans for the Northern Irishman did not seem so obvious. He didn’t appear to be a particularly essential part of his backroom staff until Lennon was suddenly thrust into the limelight after the 4-0 reversal to St Mirren which saw Mowbray sacked. And now, here he is, perhaps proven after all. C’mon over to his place, he is having a party.