No-one needs tell Neil Lennon how ridiculously quickly perceptions turn upside down and back to front in the Glasgow footballing environment.
Had the Celtic manager’s efforts been recognised a fortnight ago and not yesterday, the 48-year-old would have had a dunce’s cap sitting in front of him instead of the glinting metal cast of the Ladbrokes Premiership manager of the month award.
Lennon was called out as tactically “out of his depth” by sections of his own support on the back of the 4-3 loss at home to Cluj that rubbled the club’s Champions League hopes. At the weekend, he was considered to have presided over a tactical masterclass in his first major domestic test. It was passed with flying colours as his Celtic side were set up in a manner that allowed them to dictate terms comprehensively, and destroy countless pre-match predictions that Rangers would be too much for the Scottish champions in their Ibrox environs.
All of which begged the question yesterday as to whether Lennon, who has now led Celtic to four titles, three domestic cups, one Champions League last-16 appearance and, now, two derby wins at Ibrox – the 48-year-old considering the backdrop to Sunday’s victory ensuring it is “up there” with his finest in the fixture – might feel under-estimated as a manager.
“Possibly,” he offered in response to that poser. “But I can’t control that. I don’t think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think I’m alright. I know how to win games and get results. And there aren’t many people who get the opportunity to manage a club like this for a second time. So, that makes me very proud, and it’s a privilege – and it makes me very driven as well.”
That drive, in part, comes from a struggle of some among his own faithful to accept he is the right man for the job, the Brendan Rodgers era giving the more starstruck a taste for the profile that Lennon’s predecessor brought to the post. “I don’t know [what I need to do to be accepted by some] and, to be fair, sometimes that gives you a bit of an edge – and that’s good because you should never get comfortable in this job,” Lennon said.
“It makes you work that little bit harder and this is a results-driven business and, if you can get the performance and the result, even better.”
Two weeks ago, Celtic supporters were in uproar over all aspects of the club. They were “downsizing”, with a manager, squad and board who were “gambling” with their quest to claim a ninth straight title this season in pursuit of a hallowed, and unprecedented ten. Now, it could be argued that the squad is stronger than at any time in the past two years. Certainly, the window doesn’t look as grim as it was being claimed in the wake of Kieran Tierney’s £25 million sale to Arsenal last month.
Neither £2.2m purchase from Kilmarnock Greg Taylor nor Boli Bolingoli should be expected to be for the club what Tierney turned out to be. It would be “folly” to land that responsibility on the shoulders of 21-year-old Scotland international Taylor, Lennon stresses.
“Kieran is unique,” he said. “He was a record sale and an outstanding footballer. We are not expecting Greg or Boli to come in and hit those heights. But progressively they will get better and improve. Boli, for example, played very well in difficult circumstances on Sunday and I was delighted with his performance. A slow-burner, maybe we are starting to see the best of him now. It’s good to have competition for places.”
Across the rest of the defence, it could be argued that Celtic have been strengthened by their summer activity in the market, though. Lennon doesn’t pretend other than the club lost “big players” with Dedryck Boyata, Mikael Lustig and Filip Benkovic departing. However, with £7m centre-back Christopher Jullien, and competition in the right-back area between Hatem Abd Elhamed and Stoke City loanee Moritz Bauer in defence Celtic may turn out to be stronger.
Add to that the temporary deal for winger Mohamed Elyounoussi, a £16m purchase for Southampton, as well as the landing of highly-rated youngsters Jeremie Frimpong and Lee O’Connor, from Manchester City and Manchester United respectively, and the refreshing of the squad begins to appear extensive and potentially enterprising. Not least, Lennon would argue, when he already had a front six that can do “serious damage”.
“I think we are healthy,” Lennon said. “We have spent some money and brought some quality players in shrewdly. We’ve also made a really good sale of a top player and we got top dollar for him. It’s been a very good window. I think we are strong.”