AT JUST 42, the remarkable story of Neil Lennon’s life in football still has plenty of mileage left. But there was an unmistakable sense of his career coming full circle when he touched down at Belfast International Airport yesterday.
Back in his homeland for business purposes for the first time as Celtic manager, tonight’s Champions League second qualifying round, first leg fixture against Cliftonville carries obvious personal significance for Lennon.
Not least because it was against the same opponents that he took his first steps in senior football some 27 years ago, making his Irish League debut for Glenavon, his home town club in Lurgan, against the north Belfast side.
“That was huge for me,” he recalled. “I was playing in a proper stadium, Mourneview Park, in front of a good crowd on a Saturday afternoon in a league game.
“I was only 15 at the time and it was amazing. I scored too, which proved to be a rarity. It was a long, long time ago now but it gave me a real taste for life in football. I only played a couple more games for Glenavon, then went across the water to Manchester City to start my career.
“Any time I come home, having been away for all these years, it’s nice. It’s different for me now, because I’m working, but it’s still a nice feeling. You see some familiar surroundings that you haven’t seen for a while.
“I’m proud to come back as Celtic manager and the other ingredient is that we are playing Cliftonville. There is such a good rapport between the two clubs and it’s very special.”
Lennon, of course, will have no time for such sentiment come 7.45pm tonight when Cliftonville’s Solitude ground will be rammed to its 3,000 capacity for the visit of the Scottish champions. There is no doubt Lennon’s expressions of concern regarding this tie are not simply intended to pay lip service in terms of respect towards the Irish League champions.
“It is fraught with anxiety because it’s a difficult game for us,” he insisted. “People will look from the outside and say it should be a formality, but they never are. Even if this was a pre-season friendly, it would still be an awkward game.
“It means everything to Cliftonville and it should mean everything for us. I will be emphasising that to the players. It’s a dangerous game, a booby trap of a game, and we will have to play very well to get a result over here.
“Cliftonville had a wonderful season last year and they will be highly motivated. But the Champions League is so important to us and we have to be professional and quell the home crowd. We need to impose our game on Cliftonville. I don’t want the players to get caught up in a party atmosphere.
“There’s a great friendship between both clubs but that won’t play a part at all. We are here to be professional. This is very important for everyone at this club and once the game starts we will be giving it our all.”
Lennon is looking for his players to replicate the intensity of focus they took into their successful qualifying round ties against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs last season.
“Our mentality was good in those games,” he added. “The team didn’t panic early. We did have bad moments in both the ties. The way they negotiated the two qualifiers last year impressed me greatly so I’m hoping that experience will stand them in good stead here.
“They seem to have taken to the European games really well, probably because the majority of them are from a non-British background. The way they handled the Champions League last year and the Europa League the year before was really impressive.
“I don’t know how far down the line Cliftonville are with their preparations but we can’t take these games lightly. The artificial surface at Solitude might not help us either. But I think the players, because it is a competitive game, will be really up for it.
“It’s not ideal having to play at this time, but we knew about it three or four months ago. We tried to stagger the pre-season, the end of the season and the close season as best we can. It’s impossible to get them up to full speed, but with the quality and athleticism we have in the team, we should be okay.
“I don’t feel more relaxed than I was last year. But I think because we achieved something last year, I’ve got that monkey off my back in terms of qualifying.
“Regardless of what happens this year, I know I can do it because I’ve done it before. But with this game, I am concerned.”
A key figure for Lennon once more will be Georgios Samaras who excelled in last season’s Champions League adventure, scoring in five successive away games in the tournament. The Greek striker remains committed to achieving further success with the club and revealed his willingness to extend his contract which is due to expire next summer.
“I can see myself staying here longer,” said the 28-year-old. “I have a great relationship with the manager and if he wants me to stay, I want to stay. It’s difficult to say if I could finish my career here but I want to keep winning games and trophies for Celtic.
Ten tales about Cliftonville
Cliftonville, nicknamed “The Reds”, are the oldest football club in Ireland. It was founded in 1879 by John McAlery, the man who would later be credited as “the father of Irish football”. The Belfast businessman was treasurer of the Cliftonville cricket club but became fascinated with football after a honeymoon trip to Scotland. Upon returning home McAlery invited two Scottish clubs – Caledonia and Queen’s Park – to play an exhibition match. Noticing that there was local interest in the new sport he took out an ad in a local newspaper looking for players to establish Cliftonville FC. Once that was all set up, he went around Ulster encouraging other sports clubs to take up this new game. When the interest grew he held a meeting that would see the establishment of the Irish Football Association and eventually the Irish FA Cup.
1 - Despite losing the first-ever final, the club was dominant in the early period of the Cup. In the first 28 years of the competition they would appear in the final 12 times, winning seven of those.
2 - The only game in (English) FA Cup history to be held on Christmas Day curiously featured two Northern Irish teams: Cliftonville and Linfield. The December 1888 fixture it is not a happy memory for Clintonville as they were soundly thrashed 7-0, a result that echoed a similarly indignant 11-0 exit to Partick Thistle two years earlier.
3 - Similar to Queen’s Park across the Irish Sea, Cliftonville remained an amateur club for years after all those around them turned professional and semi-professional. Unlike their Scottish peers The Reds decided to become
semi-professional in 1970.
4 - Arguably the most famous goal in the club’s history belongs to former hero Tony Bell. The proficient striker netted an injury-time winner in the 1979 Irish Cup Final which defeated Portadown and brought home the first piece of silverware in 70 years.
5 - At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, they recorded their first-ever home victory in Europe. HNK Cibalia were the victims in a major surprise since the Croatians had just finished third in an arguably far superior league the previous season. Ciaran Caldwell’s 82nd-minute winner in the first leg was the only goal of the tie and the club advanced to the next round where they were eliminated by CSKA Sofia.
6 - The Northern Irish Champions grabbed only the fourth title in their history last season, and only their second triumph in 100 years. To put that into context, Linfield and Glentoran have been champions of their country 51 and 23 times respectively. Despite the rarity of the achievement there was still a twinge of regret once the season’s final whistle had sounded with Cliftonville losing 3-1 to Glentoran after extra time in the Irish Cup Final. Their fellow Belfast rivals may possess a greater history but Cliftonville had finished 34 points ahead of them in the league table and won the last match between the sides a convincing 4-1. The loss denied them the chance to become only the second side (Linfield the other) to win the domestic treble.
7 - The current manager is Tommy Breslin who was promoted from the job of assistant after former manager Eddie Patterson was sacked before the end of the 2010-11 season.
8 - The squad’s star player is undoubtedly striker Liam Boyce. The local boy made his debut with the club in 2008 and in his first full season was awarded the Football Writers’ Player of the Year. Still only 19, Boyce was watched by many keen eyes around Europe and even had a trial with Celtic before signing for Werder Bremen. However, he failed to even break into the Germans’ second team and was released a couple of months into the 2011-12 season. His former club wasted no time in bringing him back. The prodigal son found the net 38 times in all competitions last season, firing himself to the top of the league scorers’ charts.
9 - The name of Cliftonville’s stadium is simply Solitude. The ground was initially shared with the cricket club when it opened in 1890 and was the venue for the first-ever penalty taken in international football. It currently holds 2,552 and has a synthetic 3G pitch.
10 - Unlike other teams in Northern Irish football who have been plagued by problems with sectarianism, Cliftonville have had no such issues. The ground is situated in a primarily Catholic Belfast community, but the team enjoys a loyal support from older Protestant supporters who have followed the club throughout the shifting religious landscape. Additionally, the club is completely run by the supporters.