Celtic: Neil Lennon at the crossroads

Champions League nights like this seasons clash with Barcelona have provided Neil Lennon with some welcome challenges but the domestic game has been less satisfactory. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNSChampions League nights like this seasons clash with Barcelona have provided Neil Lennon with some welcome challenges but the domestic game has been less satisfactory. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNS
Champions League nights like this seasons clash with Barcelona have provided Neil Lennon with some welcome challenges but the domestic game has been less satisfactory. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNS
NEIL Lennon is the second-longest serving manager in situ at a Scottish senior side. If, in 13-and-a-half months’ time, he passes the five-year mark in charge of Celtic, his unbroken spell at the helm will surpass that of any occupant in the post since Jock Stein almost four decades ago.

Lennon’s longevity has exposed him to some undeniable and uncomfortable truths about time-frames.

“It’s a huge job and it’s like everything else, you have good days and bad days,” he says. “The good days are good and the bad days are horrific. That’s part of the excitement as well. You have to be a bit of a masochist to do this job.”

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One of the horrific days arrived with the Scottish Cup fifth-round home defeat by Aberdeen last weekend. In the aftermath, the Celtic manager has been prepared to put on his hairshirt – “there has been a bit of soul searching but it is not a national disaster, I have got to put some sort of perspective on it”, he says – but some among the club’s followers seem to want him to wear the garment on a permanent basis.

Care must always be taken when making assessments on the mood of any team’s fans from the fulminators and frothers who forever populate cyberspace. Yet the fact that this faction has gone into overdrive in the wake of the Aberdeen elimination, which made this season the first in 32 years where Celtic did not reach either domestic cup quarter-final, cannot entirely be ignored.

Celtic are the solitary superpower of the Scottish game. Merely winning the league and negotiating Champions League qualifiers against sides with only a fraction of their resources must then leave the club only in the break-even position. Lennon accepts that this means there has been slippage in his fourth season in charge. Not that progress is ever linear for a football team. It wasn’t even under Stein.

In the past, Lennon has acknowledged that every manager has a shelf life. With typically-admirable candour, the 42-year-old does not simply dismiss the questions now being posed by some Celtic supporters over his very own shelf life. “I think you know instinctively when there is a cut-off point. Whether mine is here yet or not I do not know,” he says.

Gordon Strachan stepped down after four years at Celtic, but a staleness had long-since enveloped his era.

Lennon, while enjoying a similar silverware record, has overseen an upgrade in the standard of footballers and football witnessed in the east end of Glasgow – as well as banking record profits on player sales. In large part, the problem for the Irishman is that, with no credible title challenge, his record is being judged on domestic cup successes, with only two won in nine attempts. In previous times such honours were perceived only as add-ons where the title was concerned. A point not lost on him.

“We are going to win another championship by the looks of it and people will go, ‘so what?’,” Lennon says. “That’s a difficult thing to deal with. Years ago, there was a spell where people would have chopped your right arm off for the opportunity to be challenging for a title rather than going on to win one. I have to look past that. I have to look at the players, some of the new boys that have come in, getting them bedded in for next year. I can think about the Champions League but not too much, I have to work in the present.”

The present for him is the quest to remain unbeaten for the entire league season – a feat not achieved in the modern age – and become only the second team to break the 100-point mark. Even if there is no Rangers, no championship rival, these are not gimmes, since, in the selfsame circumstances last year, Celtic came nowhere close to such lofty outcomes.

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In his newspaper column last week, Sky analyst and former Celtic winger Davie Provan said it was time, for the sake of both Lennon and the club, that the two now part. Yet, that does not factor in the realities of life for a man who has not had a period out of the game during his whole adult life. It is all very well encouraging a manager to move on, but you have to have somewhere to go. And, beyond his honour at fulfilling a post that ties him with emotional binds, there are also more prosaic reasons why Lennon hasn’t been seeking break-up advice from mentor Strachan.

“I speak to Gordon about it but it’s not high on my agenda at the minute,” he says. “This is a great job and there’s a lot of other managers out of work. I don’t fancy looking at wallpaper and carpets and stuff like that for the next however long it would be because, once you are out of a job, it’s very difficult to get back in. [The job is important because] one, it is good money. It pays the bills and keeps the clothes on the kids. And two, you can be forgotten about very quickly in the game, and that’s important to remember as well. There are good managers who have been out of the game for two and three years and applied for jobs everywhere and can’t get back in. You’ve got to be careful. I’m not saying I’m going to leave here and walk straight into another job. I haven’t made any designated plans for that either. I’m not in any rush just yet.”

Lennon’s motivations as his fourth-year anniversary hoves into view, are straightforward. “Just to get better as an individual. Looking at the season, Champions League, can we improve on that? Yes, we can. There’s an incentive there. One to qualify and then to have better go at the group stages. Can we recruit better, can we get players in? We have lost some real quality this year so it needs to be replaced to get back to the level we were at 13 or 14 months ago when, for me, the peak was probably beating Barcelona. We have lost five of that team, so that’s a big turnover in 14 months. And, domestically, can we win more trophies next year?”

For the sake of quelling the (still small) number of grumblers, Lennon will know he needs to win more trophies next year.