‘I never want to leave Celtic again’ – Neil Lennon is here for the long run

Neil Lennon admits that having this opportunity again is fantastic and he's really enjoying it.  Photograph: Paul Devlin/SNS Group
Neil Lennon admits that having this opportunity again is fantastic and he's really enjoying it. Photograph: Paul Devlin/SNS Group
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It might seem strange to the outsider that the Celtic experience now being lapped up by Neil Lennon was one that he seemed to close a door on when ties were cut in the summer of 2014 following four years in charge of the club.

The Irishman maintains that this parting was necessary. Equally, though, he doesn’t want to go through such a break-up ever again. It was Frank Sinatra who crooned that love is lovelier second time around. And he was the comeback king. Lennon would say the same about the opportunity to manage for a second time the club that he loves.

Yet, the life-affirming nature of the epic victory at home to Lazio the other week that is hard to replicate anywhere else in football didn’t cause him to question going his separate ways with a club the 48-year-old has served for almost two decades five years ago.

“Listen, I had my reasons for leaving at that time,” Lennon said. “I don’t regret it because it was the right thing for me to do at the time. But I wanted to bring those type of nights back to Celtic Park. And the Lazio win was the perfect storm for a European game at Celtic Park. The game matched the atmosphere, the occasion, the performance and result. We got a taste of it against Cluj at home but Lazio was even better. And I want more of it. Once you get a taste, you want the players and the fans to get more nights like that because we all enjoy it.

“It makes me never want to leave again. But I’m older and wiser now. Now, I’ve got a second crack at it, I’m really grateful for the opportunity. I inherited a really good squad and we’ve brought in quality players. So I’m really loving what I’m doing here at the minute. I know it’s a high-pressure job but I’m embracing the challenge.

“We’re top of the league and top of our Europa League group and we’re in a cup final. So I can’t ask any more of the players in terms of what they’re giving me.

“When I left first time around, I was ambitious and wanted to try other things. But I feel differently now. After Barcelona [were beaten in 2012 on the way to the Champions League last 16] we changed the squad, we sold a lot of good players, and there was no Rangers.

“In my last year, we won the league by 19 points so you’re thinking, is it time for me to change and time for the club to make a change as well. Maybe it needed a new voice because four years is a long time in modern-day football at a club like this. So it was a good time for me to go. And I left on the best of terms with the opportunity of the door maybe being open again in the future.

“You can’t predict that but thankfully that’s the way it’s turned out. And having this opportunity again is fantastic, I’m really enjoying it. The fact that Rangers are back challenging, that drives me on too. It heightens the senses and pushes me on. The way we’re playing right now is fantastic. With the big games we’ve got coming up, I can’t ask for much more as a manager. But I know it can flip very quickly.

“I can’t imagine a feeling like we had against Lazio that night anywhere else in football. That’s just what Celtic brings. What that can do for the players in terms of their own gravitas, is brilliant. And that feeling… I talk to the players a lot about the feeling. It’s not about the money or the medals, it’s about that feeling you get after a performance like that. Only those players as individuals can experience that glow of complete satisfaction.

“It doesn’t last long in this game – but that’s what you play for, really. When you hear [Lazio manager Simone] Inzaghe, inset, referencing it [as something he would be telling his children about for many years], it’s a great compliment. I thought he spoke really well. It made me very proud of the club and coming from a coach at a club like that, it meant a hell of a lot.”