NEIL Lennon knows he will be celebrating his second successive championship triumph as Celtic manager in just a matter of weeks.
But it is how the achievement is perceived many years from now which is exercising his mind as his players close in on a title win which was universally regarded as a racing certainty even before they kicked a ball in anger back in August.
Lennon knows that the absence of the traditional challenge of Old Firm rivals Rangers this season means many observers will consider Celtic’s title success to be devalued. But he is adamant his team are worthy of just as much recognition as any other SPL-winning squad.
“They won’t get the credit for it years down the line because people will say: ‘Well, Rangers weren’t there,’ reflected Lennon.
“But Rangers were here last year and our players coped very well with a huge deficit in the league and went on to win it. This season, they’ve handled the big games pretty well, too.
“Rangers being out of the league doesn’t take away any of the satisfaction, not for me or the players. We won the league with Rangers in it last year. They’re not here now and there is nothing we can do about that. The reality is that they’re in the Third Division and we need to keep improving as a club.
“We need to keep winning and keep creating assets in the squad. We’ve done all that, more or less reaching all the targets we wanted to. Others may look at it differently, but you can only beat what’s in front of you. If other people want to cast aspersions, then fine. There is nothing we can do about that.”
Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw at St Johnstone took Celtic’s lead at the top of the table to 19 points with 12 games remaining, maintaining the possibility of Lennon’s men becoming the first team to clinch the SPL title in March.
If the size of their advantage lends weight to the theory they are simply cruising to the finishing line in a one-horse race, Lennon is quick to point out similar scenarios currently unfolding in some of the major European leagues.
“Winning championships is not easy, even though everyone looked at this one as a foregone conclusion,” added Lennon. “But if you look at Germany this season, Bayern Munich are 15 points clear at the top. Manchester United are 12 points clear in England and Barcelona are also 12 points ahead in Spain.
“Not many of the big leagues are competitive. They tend to have one dominant team and that seems to be the case with us as well.”
Celtic were actually dogged by inconsistency at the start of this title defence, dropping 17 points in their first 14 games as other clubs such as Motherwell, Hibs and Inverness Caledonian Thistle were able to flirt with top-of-the-table status. But the defending champions have been far more reliable in their subsequent 13 fixtures, winning 11 of them and dropping just five points in that period.
There is little doubt their earlier unpredictability was a consequence of their Champions League campaign which Lennon feels adds an extra dimension to their ongoing domestic supremacy.
“Every title means the same,” he said. “But this one may actually mean more to us, given the European run we’ve had this year and the exertions the players have gone through. Since we beat Spartak Moscow to reach the last 16 of the Champions League, we have won most of our games in the SPL.
“We have scored a lot of goals and our home form has really picked up. Our away form has also been pretty good all season. We have set targets like points totals, as well as individial targets for each player. They’re focused on achieving them.
“I know the players have a brilliant mentality. They keep surprising me, though. For such a young team, the experience they’ve gained in the past couple of years will stand them in good stead for wherever they go next.
“It’s not easy playing for Celtic. It’s not easy rising to the expectation at times, but they’ve handled it very, very well this season.”
Celtic defender Kelvin Wilson echoes Lennon’s view that their imminent domestic title win will be all the more laudable in coming alongside an impressive European run.
“For me, it’s a great achievement to do well on both fronts,” said Wilson. “For example, you play Barcelona in the Champions League midweek and then have a SPL game on a Saturday.
“You go into that league game with a lot having been taken from you both mentally and physically from the European match. That’s why when we look back on this season it will be one to be proud of.
“I look at the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville and think about how they competed in Europe and also won domestic titles with Manchester United for so many years.
“We’ve done that this year for the first time and it’s tough. I really take my hat off to them because they did it for so many years running. I think you only appreciate what the likes of Giggs has done when you have had a go at it yourself.
“So it’s been a great season. People say we’ve lost more games than we did last season, but we’ve had a great run in Europe, too.
“If and when we do win the league, we can look back on it with pride. Any season you win a title, you have to enjoy it.”