Neil Lennon watched Celtic clinch back-to-back Clydesdale Premier League titles with an impressive 4-1 victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle yesterday, and told fans in his on-the-pitch address: “I’m the happiest man in the country.
“It was a brilliant performance. A great way to win the title.”
His delight was shared by his players, with stand-in captain Joe Ledley, who was on the scoresheet, speaking of how inspired he is by the winning habit at the club.
The Welshman, wearing the armband in the absence of Scott Brown, scored in between a Gary Hooper double with Georgios Samaras, on for Anthony Stokes, netting with a virtuoso goal two minutes from time before Aaron Doran scored a late consolation for the visitors.
It was the midfielder’s second consecutive title win since joining the Parkhead club from Cardiff City in 2010 and he has the chance to win a second William Hill Scottish Cup winners medal next month when Celtic face Hibs in the Hampden final.
The 26-year-old said he could not be happier with the pressure of always having to produce. “Winning does become a bit of a habit,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing – going out there and winning games. When you join a club like Celtic it takes a while but you grow into it and then that’s all you want to do.
“We’re a young squad – and very hungry – and I think that’s what you need in a team. Everyone wants to win and when we don’t win there’s a few arguments and things like that.
“We’re winners at the end of the day and that’s what we want to do. The pressure to win is the best there is. It’s no good going to a club that’s mid-table or fighting relegation and thinking ‘let’s go here and get a point or hang on’.
“At Celtic, wherever you go, whether it’s in the league or the Champions League, you are always under pressure to win. That’s what you want as a footballer – to win things. It’s fantastic to come here and have that pressure and I think we’ve dealt with it fantastically well this season especially in the Champions League. Hopefully we can just continue that until the end of the season.”
While speculation surrounds which players could be leaving Celtic in the summer, with 28-goal Hooper and midfielder Victor Wanyama favourites to go, Ledley is keen to stay and hopes disruption is kept to a minimum.
“There will always be ins and outs in football at every single club,” said the Wales international. “We have a fantastic team and I’ll be very surprised if everyone stays. Everyone has watched us in the Champions League and SPL and there’s going to be a lot of interest in the majority of the players.
“But if we can keep it together, we have a fantastic future and Celtic will go forward and hopefully qualify for the Champions League again. There’s nothing new with my own situation at the moment but I’ll sit down near the beginning of next season and try to sort something out.
“Myself, Gary and Kelvin (Wilson) all have a lot of time left on our contracts. But I love it here at Celtic and obviously want to stay. I think most of the players do want to stay but you just never know in football. Anything can happen. It would be good to keep this squad together and see what happens.”
Brown was a relieved man after watching his team-mates cruise to victory.
Lennon’s men are now 15 points clear of second-placed Motherwell with four league games remaining and Brown was happy to see Celtic get over the line. “It’s a relief. I think it’s always nervy toward the end,” he said.
“You just want to get over the line, but the main thing is we’ve managed to do it and we’ve brought the title home.”
Celtic’s title challenge was strengthened by Rangers’ demotion to the Third Division at the start of the season, but Brown pointed to their European exertions – where they reached the last 16 of the Champions League – as proof that they have not had an easy ride. “It’s still been hard for us. We’ve had the Champions League during the week and then on to playing weekend games is hard,” he added.
“We’ve been lucky enough Rangers weren’t in the league but the main thing is we have won this league and it’s been a great season. Hopefully we can stick together a long time. The lads are doing themselves proud week in week out.
“To bring something home for the fans, it means a lot for us.”
Meanwhile, Hooper shrugged off speculation about his own future – having been the subject of repeated bids from Norwich City during the January transfer window – to state: “The main thing is celebrating this first and then look to the final on 26 May and win that to do the double.
“We’ve got a great squad, we’ve played really well and it showed in the Champions League and it showed today that we’re really good at home and we can beat anyone.”
Midfielder Kris Commons had the final word on Lennon: “Some people are born natural leaders,” said the Scotland international. “He showed that as a captain on the pitch, and he’s shown it now. He’s a real gentleman, a pleasure to work with. I owe a lot to Neil, he’s been terrific this year.”