Of the three assignments that await Neil Lennon and his Celtic side in the next eight days, one would seem to offer a bit of light relief. A home encounter with a Partick Thistle struggling at the foot of the Championship appears altogether less exacting than today’s Premiership hosting of a re-energised Kilmarnock or the trip to Easter Road for a league meeting with Hibernian next Saturday.
Except, that is, for the small matter of the Thistle confrontation on Wednesday coming at the quarter-final stage of the League Cup, a competition that doesn’t seem to agree with Lennon. The trophy is the only domestic honour he has yet to win as a manager in Scotland, and was the tournament he enjoyed least success in as a player.
In his four-year first spell it provided only hiccups and heartache. A home loss to Morton at the same stage, while arguably the worst cup result in the club’s history, was written off as the former. Losing the 2012 final to Kilmarnock – “we should have won that hands down”, said the Irishman – and the 2013 semi-final to St Mirren belonged in the latter camp. “That was one that got away when we could have won a treble that season,” stated the Celtic manager.
The club will be looking to move within two games of a tenth consecutive domestic honour, on the back of Lennon reeling in the treble treble as interim. His fervent wish is that the League Cup doesn’t feel a palpable duty to continually besmirch his managerial record. Heck, even the difficulties Celtic encountered in requiring extra-time to see off another toiling Championship side in Dunfermline at home in the last round pointed to the tournament still being an awkward customer for Lennon.
“Maybe there is a little bit of a hex over me with the competition. We’ll see. I certainly hope not,” he said.
The Celtic manager accepts that with a Europa League campaign to negotiate during a glut of games in the coming months, the League Cup might not seem a priority. It is imperative, though, that even as he juggles his squad, it doesn’t become an afterthought.
For all the false memories that have built up since, that wasn’t true of the Morton exit in September 2013. The “too many changes” charge levelled at him after a penalty in extra-time ended their participation does not square with his fielding a side that included Virgil van Dijk, Scott Brown, Mikael Lustig, Tom Rogic and Teemu Pukki, pictured.
“We had a good team out and peppered the goal and ended up losing one-nil,” he said. “And then you ask yourself ‘did I make too many changes?’ But I look at the actual team and we had seven internationals playing.
“We’re not guaranteed to win [on Wednesday]. We are at home, so that’s good, it gives us an advantage, but we are coming up against a team that maybe will shine through adversity and gives us real problems like Dunfermline did, so we have to be very wary of it.
“We have got to look at it [prioritising] but obviously make sure we don’t overcook it. It might be an opportunity to give some players who haven’t played that much game time, with other games coming up. You need to give them some match rhythm but you don’t want to make too many changes. It might be an opportunity for other players with the carrot that if you win it there is an opportunity to get to a semi-final. You don’t want the cup run [a record 28 consecutive domestic cup tie successes] to come to an end.”
Lennon doesn’t need reminding that Thistle can threaten Celtic’s League Cup ambitions at Parkhead. He played in the November 2002 quarter-final that they could only be settled in their favour on the back of an interminable penalty shoot-out.
“I was actually talking to the players about that after the Dunfermline game,” said Lennon. “Even in great eras you get a difficult tie – no matter how well or how badly you play. I think it went to nine penalties each. Me and John Hartson were having a giggle about it afterwards and Martin [O’Neill] absolutely went through us… so that was the end of that.”