BY HIS own admission, Neil Lennon has felt like an outcast for the past few days. In coming to terms with Celtic’s 6-1 drubbing in Barcelona, he found even those closest to him regarding him warily.
“People look at you, your family and friends, as though you’ve got a hump on your back,” reflects Lennon. “They give you a sympathetic ‘you’re all right’ look, with a wee smile. You feel like you’re a leper, that you’re really ill or something like that. That’s just natural human beings wanting to feel for you, but the last thing you want is sympathy.”
Lennon doesn’t want it and insists he doesn’t need it. He is aware of the chatter surrounding his position as Celtic manager, whether he has already taken them as far as possible and if a move to a new challenge is on his immediate horizon.
But despite the reality of Celtic’s current environment, where domestic dominance runs in tandem with their status as European makeweights, Lennon is adamant he remains both content and ambitious for further achievements in his present role.
“I don’t need sympathy. I’ve got a great job,” he added. “We’ve been pretty successful overall, but we’ve had a bad Champions League campaign this year. It is where we are as a club and we look to build on that and progress and get better. I might get the sack tomorrow, I don’t know. But I’m the manager of Celtic and it’s a privilege to be the manager of Celtic.
“I never think about other jobs, because there are millions of good managers out there without a job. I can’t be blasé enough to think: ‘Well, I’ve done my bit here, I’m not getting what I want, it’s time for me to stomp off somewhere else.’ That, to me, is a spoiled brat kind of attitude.
“You have good days in the job and you have bad days in the job. In the past couple of years, the good days have way outweighed the bad days.
“People say a manager can only take a team so far – well, you build another team then. That’s the challenge. It’s the motivation. You feel lousy after a performance like Wednesday and it damages your record, if you want to call it that. So the motivation is to have a new start and go again. Can I build another team that is as good as last year’s?”
That was a topic for discussion at a board meeting at Celtic Park attended by Lennon yesterday morning. He confirmed it had been scheduled before the record-equalling loss at the Nou Camp.
“Yes, it was nothing to do with Wednesday night, thankfully,” he said. “I’m still here! The meeting was fine. The only thing we were all disappointed with was the score from the other night. In the big scheme of things, we’re flying.
“Obviously we’re all sore and disappointed with the way the Champions League campaign finished. But we set ourselves a very high bar in the tournament last year and we weren’t able to replicate it, for varying reasons.
“We lost, or sold, three very good players in Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson, and, for me, we were drawn in the toughest group. Financially we are way, way out of that league. We can compete in footballing terms – we can’t financially.
“I thought we probably wouldn’t be as strong this season – that’s probably a natural feeling. There isn’t a conveyor belt of Wanyamas out there so that you can find one every year. People might say we struck lucky with him – we found a good player, we developed him and we sold him for a lot of money.
“That is the strategy that I have been told to work in. Find players with resale value, develop them and sell them on, and in the meantime try to be as successful as you can on the pitch. We’ve had two back-to-back campaigns in the Champions League. We had no real right to qualify for the last 16 last year, but we did. To do it again was always going to be a difficult thing to do in this group. Even if we’d had those three players, I’m not convinced we would have qualified anyway.
“The way the club operates can’t change. We can spend significant money on players so long as they are young and good enough. But it has to be the right one and he has to want to come, and we can eventually sell him on for more money. Could we pay £25,000 a week for another Gary Hooper? Yes, absolutely. Would I want that? Yes.
“Look at it this way – we did make significant bids for a couple of players in the summer. Would it have made a difference to us qualifying? If I had put all my eggs in one basket and bought a £7 million player and not tidied up other areas of the squad, would we have qualified? I don’t know is the answer.
“Would he have made us better? Possibly in the striking department, yeah. But we’re not in a position to spend £7m on a player and that’s the reality of it – maybe £4m, and again it’s about attracting the right one and getting the wages right. When you’re investing that sort of money in this climate it has to be spot-on.
“That is what we found, chasing a couple of players in the summer. They just didn’t want to come. The other thing is that in the summer you’re not guaranteed Champions League football. You’ve got three qualifiers. You play them by mid-August and then you’ve got ten to 14 days to find the players that you want and that’s a very difficult thing to do.
“Everyone keeps asking me about players I don’t have, but I need to concentrate on the players I do have. I brought them in and it’s my responsibility now to make them better.
“Virgil van Dijk has done exceptionally well, I think there’s more to come from Derk Boerrigter, Teemu Pukki and Nir Biton. Amido Balde is a work in progress, but I have maintained all along that I didn’t have Champions League plans for him this season. He was basically a player we wanted to bring in and develop and eventually make better. That’s still going ahead.”
Lennon’s mood may have lightened by the time he faced the media yesterday, but he stood by his stinging immediate post-match criticism of his team’s display in Barcelona.
“I hope that was a one-off,” he said. “It hurt me and I haven’t slept well since. The players didn’t perform anywhere near how they can. We had international players out there who did the basics wrong. The decision-making was poor.
“You are sitting there powerless to do anything about it. I haven’t often been in that situation, so again it was a humbling experience for myself which I think can only be good.
“All the great managers have had it, all good managers have had it, so I shouldn’t be exempt from it. It’s about how you react to that, a sign of your character and your personality and your desire to do better and that’s what I want to do now.”