Neil Lennon was yesterday moved to issue an impassioned defence of a season that has ‘just’ delivered a league title and qualification for the Champions League group stage.
Twenty years after Fergus McCann arrived to save the club from extinction, it was hard to avoid noting how things have changed for Celtic, something Lennon sought to emphasise by reminding observers that he would be “happy” to simply win a league title every year.
Outside in the car park of a well-appointed training centre there was further evidence of wealth and prosperity. Lennon recalled meeting McCann in Boston during pre-season four years ago. After introducing the former owner to the players, he told them: “You know all those nice houses you’ve got, and those fancy cars, well, you wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for this guy”.
Lennon yesterday described McCann as a visionary and welcomed the week of events to commemorate the Scots-Canadian’s crucial intervention in March 1994. At stake was the club’s very existence. Celtic were rescued from the brink and now it is Rangers who are being torn apart by internal strife born out of financial meltdown.
The part McCann played in Celtic’s revival will be celebrated at Celtic Park this afternoon against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, when there will be what is described as a “mini Celtic history exhibition” in the family stand. Included among the items is one of McCann’s famous ‘bunnets’. Lennon tipped his own metaphorical hat to the former owner, whose whirlwind-like impact at Celtic took place while he was an apprentice player at Crewe Alexandra, where he described himself as “traipsing” around the training pitch moving sets of goals.
Lennon has since “read up” on this part of the Celtic story, however. The official club website has published a number of features on McCann around the anniversary of his takeover of the club, 20 years ago on Tuesday. Dermot Desmond, the current majority shareholder, helped finance the deal. “I looked over the plans that he had and he told me that they were looking for £4 million but I felt they would need to raise £8m,” Desmond told the website yesterday. “So I said I would invest £4m and underwrite another £4m, so that was really my first financial encounter with Celtic.
“I wasn’t really aware of all the intricacies going on between the various families and factions but Fergus went in there, I would say as a neutral, coldly and hard, and wanted to do the best for Celtic and its fans,” continued Desmond.
Lennon added his voice to the chorus of appreciation, with McCann due to attend the first game of next season as a guest of the club, and on what is sure to be title flag-raising day. McCann was jeered by Celtic supporters following a row about player bonuses when the flag was unfurled in 1998, with the tycoon sometimes perceived as niggardly. However, his methods were proved to be eminently sensible.
“He had foresight,” said Lennon. “He was competing against a heavily-laden Rangers team who were spending big money at the time. There’s always comparisons. If they’re spending money then why aren’t we doing the same? But he obviously knew that it wasn’t wise to do that.
“We’ve got a fantastic club with a great training ground, a fantastic stadium and it’s down to him basically. Well, perhaps not just down to him, but he was at the forefront.
“He was very reticent, very reluctant to come forward about it, very humble, very shy, but he spoke to the players for a couple of minutes,” added Lennon, referring to the meeting at Fenway Park in 2010. “I think that pleased him. What a 20 years it’s been. The last 14, 15 years have been fantastic for the club and he laid the foundations for that.”
Which is why it was possible to trace irritation in Lennon’s voice as he again sought to underline some achievements that he feels have been “overlooked” in recent months, while pointing out that he has been ill-served by the loss of key players. Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper, Kelvin Wilson and most recently Joe Ledley have departed for sizeable sums, and yet, with 11 games left to play, Celtic are already on 72 points. They finished last season with 79.
“People say we have not been making progression – I would disagree,” he said. “It is difficult to progress when you are selling your best players and we have sold four of those this year. It is a case of stabilising this year and rebuilding to get better, and build on what is arguably going to be ‘just’ a league title.
“Maybe that’s just the expectations and the standards that we’ve set previously. I’ll take it. I’ll be quite happy to take the league title every year. It might not be enough for other people, but if you’re bringing in players and then selling them off for big money, it’s difficult to replace them straight away. What I’m seeing now is that we’ve got [Virgil] van Dijk in and [Nir] Biton’s starting to make really good progress. We’re starting to see blooms of improvement again with the newer players.”
Lennon conceded that being eliminated before the quarter-final stage of both domestic cup competitions was “disappointing”, and not to be shied away from. But he stressed that Celtic need to keep “bubbling along” between now and the end of the season. Despite the surrendering of their unbeaten league record at Aberdeen on Tuesday, there is, according to Lennon, still plenty to motivate his players, who know that if they win today then just another three victories will be required to secure a third successive league title.
“We have only conceded 14 goals this season,” added Lennon. “We maybe can create a record there. Obviously we can try and get over 100 points. But it is just trying to keep a winning run going between now and the end of the season. But we will freshen things up.”