IN VIEW of the circumstances, it is not surprising that Neil Lennon believes reaching the Champions League group stage this time around would stand as his greatest achievement as Celtic manager.
Lennon has been tasked with making running repairs to an already depleted side that is evidently short on match fitness. Amid such uncertain times the manager also seeks to steer his team through a series of matches where the result outstrips all other concerns. Should Celtic manage to complete the mission in the play-off round later this month then Lennon says it will rate higher on his CV than beating Barcelona in the group stage last year.
The phrase ‘the business end of the season’ has lost its relevance to Celtic, who are heavy favourites to sail towards another league title in May – or, in all probability, far earlier. Lennon is painfully aware that Celtic are charged with conducting their main business at the start of the campaign as they negotiate a set of qualifiers that will define their season before the harvest moon has even risen.
No wonder that relief rather than enjoyment is the overriding emotion that is felt by the manager each time Celtic edge another step nearer their goal. No wonder Lennon is grateful for some breathing space as Celtic move on to Dublin for a friendly match with Liverpool, and where as many as 15,000 fans are expected to gather to cheer them on. On Wednesday evening in Boras, a small dormitory town outside Gothenburg, Celtic were left to cope with far higher stakes while backed by no more than 300 fans. Lennon is not alone, but sometimes it must feel as though he is.
“These are horrible times for me,” he said yesterday while reflecting on the 0-0 draw with Elfsborg that takes his side to within 180 minutes of another six Champions League group matches. At least Lennon now has the security of knowing that Celtic will drop into the Europa League group stage should they fail to overcome whoever they are paired with in today’s draw in Nyon. Not that anything else is guaranteed, far from it.
Celtic will hope to play the second leg at home after Wednesday night’s nerve-ridden ordeal in Boras, against doughty but hardly spectacular opponents. “Maybe we need to look at our home form,” said Lennon, after the slender one-goal lead established at Celtic Park against Elfsborg meant the visitors operated under considerable pressure two evenings ago. “If we are at home first again, maybe we should be trying to get a bigger lead to take into the away leg,” he added.
Lennon’s slightly distracted demeanour on the trip to Sweden reflected how he felt. He admitted that he was probably as anxious as he had ever been prior to a match as Celtic manager. During the day on Wednesday he went for a run by the river in the quiet Swedish town in an attempt to clear his head. He was being assailed by worries. Chief among them was whether Kelvin Wilson would be in the frame of mind to rise to the occasion in his last appearance for the club, as he assured his manager he would be. Lennon was even worrying about other people’s worries.
“You worry that he [Wilson] may be worried about getting an injury or something that might ruin the deal,” he said, with reference to the player’s departure to rejoin Nottingham Forest, which is expected to be confirmed today. “But he’s a different animal, Kelvin. When he gives you his word on something he’s true to his word. I’ve known him a long time and I’m really disappointed to lose him, but his mind was made up two or three weeks ago.”
Lennon has been angered by the involvement of other unspecified characters in this transfer saga, which has hardly helped Celtic’s Champions League ambitions. “I’m not altogether happy with the way it’s been handled, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I can’t make allegations or accusations at anyone but I think we all know what’s been going on in the background. This has been a difficult time for us – a very unsettling time – but that only makes it all the more sweet to buy ourselves ten to 12 days to assess the squad.”
Something else makes success at this level all the sweeter, and that is the knowledge that Celtic have so far managed to overcome the loss of key players in Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama, both of whom made close season departures to the English Premier League. However, it is impossible to pretend that their absence was not felt.
Celtic lacked fluidity on Wednesday while chances to kill the tie off went a-begging. Something looked missing, it was suggested to Lennon. “Yeah, Wanyama and Hooper,” he replied. His comment that reaching the group stage would count as his finest moment as Celtic manager has to be set in this context.
“Getting through this would be my biggest achievement, considering what we’ve had to put up with in the last three or four weeks,” he said. “Listen, I’m not complaining because I know I’m a lot better off than a lot of other managers. But with what’s at stake, and how difficult it can be, it would be excellent.”
Lennon only had to look over his shoulder on Wednesday night to have it confirmed that there is an urgent need to sign players able to step straight into high-octane encounters. “I was looking at my bench and we had a few kids and a few rookies on there,” he said. “It’s not the place for them at the minute.”
Lennon has been given much food for thought from this particular tie with Elfsborg, which has proved far more illuminating than the previous round’s pair of engagements with the Northern Irish side Cliftonville.
He realises he has to continue adding to the squad in the shape of a centre-half and a striker, although great things are expected of recent signing Virgil van Dijk, who is recovering from a foot fracture. “We are hoping he can be a big player for us,” said Lennon of the defender.
The manager was relieved that Celtic avoided a pratfall in the form of Mo Bangura making a decisive contribution to the tie. Lennon will not wish to see the player who is on-loan from Celtic to Elfsborg again in a hurry. The Parkhead club learned something else from this Swedish adventure: make sure that a stipulation is included when players are sent out on loan that ensures they cannot then play against you.