NEIL Lennon believes that looking after Scotland has given Gordon Strachan a new lease of life, which he hopes is reciprocated by the national team finally breaking its cycle of failure.
The Celtic manager stopped short of saying yesterday that Scotland can qualify for the Euro 2016 finals, because he recognises that hype accompanies every act – good or bad – in Scottish football, but Lennon feels his old manager and mentor has an opportunity to end an exile from major tournaments that is now 16 years and counting.
Lennon pointed to a long-lost smile on Strachan’s face, after the defeat of Croatia at Hampden Park on Tuesday night in the last match of World Cup qualifying Group A, as a sign that the former Celtic manager is enjoying his work again and the Northern Irishman even admitted to having a personal stake in seeing Scotland progress because his son, Gallagher, was born in Glasgow.
Lennon continually referred to Strachan’s team as “we” during the press conference at Lennoxtown, and explained: “I have a vested interest. I live here, my son is Scottish so I’d like to see the national team progress and do well.
“I think everyone can see the improvement. That’s three wins out of four in the group, including two away. And that was the first win (over a recognised force) in a competitive game at Hampden in four or five years. You still have the two Fletchers to come back as well as Shaun Maloney and James [Forrest]. So there is some real talent missing on top of what they have already got.
“I don’t think I have seen Gordon as happy after a result for a long time. You can see what it means to Gordon and the style of football that they are playing is pleasing. It is promising but I would not get too carried away. This is what ‘we’ do – it’s all doom and gloom and now we’re going to the Euros in 2016, so there does have to be a sense of perspective.”
Lennon, though, maintained a managerial solidarity with Craig Levein and insisted the former Scotland boss was not to blame for the failure to reach Brazil 2014. “I would not totally point the finger at Craig,” said Lennon. “I remember saying that the players needed to leave their egos at the door when they turned up for Scotland and be prepared to sacrifice a lot of stuff for the national team. You are starting to see that now.
“However, winning breeds confidence. I think the Macedonia performance was the most impressive I had seen from a Scotland team away from home. Gordon knows what he wants, he knows what he has got in the squad and he is using that to the best of his ability.”
If Levein could not tame those “egos”, Lennon knew from his time as Strachan’s captain at Celtic between 2005 and 2007, and then as his coaching assistant, that there would be no return of the ego now Strachan is in charge of Scotland. “They would not last very long, not long at all,” declared Lennon. “The team comes first with Gordon. He gets the respect of the players and his man-management is excellent. What he does on the training ground appeals to players. He gets his message across.
“I had two years playing under him and then coaching with him and learned a lot. I am still on the phone regularly. He is a great man. He did wonderful things at Celtic but I think international football suits him. He looks really happy. His record could stand up next to anyone’s so far as Celtic managers go, but I think the timing for him (of becoming Scotland manager) might have been ideal.
“He had had enough of club football and fancied managing the country. It means a lot to him. You can see that he is a quality manager. I think he was the only one (who) could take Scotland forward. He won’t get carried away with it. He is very forward-thinking, he is intelligent and he has a very good way about him with the players.”
When asked if Scotland could qualify for the Euro 2016 finals, Lennon replied: “It is too early to say. It depends on the draw. If you get a competitive group then we’ve as good a chance as anyone. I wouldn’t get too hyped up about it, but when you have players of the ilk of those we mentioned who have still to come into the squad, then it augurs well.”
Of course, the cornerstone of Strachan’s plans is also Lennon’s. The two men share Scott Brown as their captain and Lennon revealed yesterday that he might have to push the midfielder into service tomorrow on the ground where he made his name. The champions visit Easter Road beset by injuries and Lennon could shelve his plan to rest Brown, who was lured to Celtic Park by Strachan paying Hibernian more than £4 million for his services in 2007.
“Ideally, I would have been able to leave him out and play someone I’ll be calling upon next week,” said Lennon. Brown, of course, will miss the Champions League match with Ajax because of his dismissal against Barcelona.
The Celtic captain may in fact see more domestic action than Lennon would have planned in the next six weeks after learning that Uefa have suspended him for three matches.