wHAT strides Neil Lennon has made as a manager in just 12 months. Historic strides. Strides that took him all the way to Moscow and back again with three points in his pocket and a burgeoning reputation as a young football manager of substance.
Unbeaten in six European ties this season. Not just surviving, but thriving in the elite competition. An away win in the Champions League at last, hewn not from a frenzied “mad dog in a meat house” defiance but clever strategy and smart execution by a team of his own making that has now won four points from a possible six in a group they were generally expected to finish bottom of.
They might yet fall away, but they have earned the right to dream of the second phase. Even a single point in back-to-back ties with Barcelona will keep that hope alive. Even without a point from those two games they would remain alive. These are heady days indeed for Lennon and his team.
Consider what has happened in Lennon’s story in just a year. October 2011 was his worst month in management, a month that saw his team lose 2-0 at Hearts, lose three goals in one half against Kilmarnock before rounding things off with an utterly lifeless 0-0 draw at home to Hibs, a result that saw the team booed off and then filleted by Lennon in the aftermath. In terms of thermonuclear rants, the one after that insipid draw at Celtic Park was right up there with his gold-standard eruption after the loss to Ross County in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup the season before. It was Lennon on the edge. At that point, he looked a seriously troubled manager.
And now? We are witnessing a different animal. The Lennon of a year ago was given to emotional outbursts against officials at the veritable dropping of a hat. That doesn’t happen much anymore, if at all. He had a chance to have a blast a few weeks ago when Kris Commons was denied a legitimate penalty in Perth but he chose not to take it. It looked like an instructive moment. Celtic had lost the game and had suffered an injustice, but he made nothing of it. It was an example of how he has matured, how he now doesn’t let himself get side-tracked by fighting unwinnable wars against officials.
We’re not saying he won’t rail against a referee making a bad decision in the future – he will; they all do – but there was a time when Lennon seemed to rail against every bad decision and it got him precisely nowhere. In fact, it was counter-productive.
The theory here is that the person who was being damaged more than any other by some of Lennon’s emotional overloads of the past was Lennon himself. He has looked more focused in recent times than he ever has done as a manager. There’s an argument to be made that the demise of Rangers has helped this process in a very considerable way. Instead of missing the heat of battle with his old foe, Lennon seems to have been liberated by the end – for now – of that kind of intensity, so much of it negative and exhausting and poisonous.
Nutting heads with Rangers might have felt like the be-all and end-all of his managerial life at the time but a new world has opened up to him since he got his team into the Champions League and it’s a world where he’s being asked to plot a result against some seriously hot teams, none hotter than the Barcelona of Messi and Xavi and Iniesta. This time twelve months ago, all Lennon could see on the road up ahead was an away match against Kilmarnock, the infamous 3-3 draw. Instead of getting sucked into the vortex of Old Firm bull****, he has this continental dimension to his professional life now and it suits him. You wouldn’t think it by looking at their banners about zombies and hearing their songs about Sevco, but Celtic really have left Rangers behind in their rear-view mirror thanks to their qualification for the Champions League.
Lennon is no longer a slugger whose management was defined by how he did in the bearpit against Rangers. He has moved on from that. There’s a lot to admire about his new direction.