Neil Lennon: Celtic must rebuild to maintain Scottish dominance

Neil Lennon celebrates James Forrest's 86th-minute winner for Celtic at Parkhead on Sunday.
Neil Lennon celebrates James Forrest's 86th-minute winner for Celtic at Parkhead on Sunday.
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In the summer of 2005, Neil Lennon was named Celtic captain as Gordon Strachan undertook the revamping of a squad which had maxed out at the end of Martin O’Neill’s outstanding tenure as manager.

As Lennon waits to learn whether he will be permanently handed the task of following up the success-strewn Brendan Rodgers era at the club, he believes similar levels of change are required to maintain their current dominance of the domestic scene.

Fourteen years ago, it was O’Neill stalwarts such as Chris Sutton, Joos Valgaeren, Jackie McNamara and Paul Lambert who moved on as Strachan put his own imprint on the club.

The end of this season will see experienced trio Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata and Emilio Izaguirre reach the end of their current contracts, while the loan quartet of Filip Benkovic, Jeremy Toljan, Oliver Burke and Timothy Weah are all scheduled to return to their parent clubs.

“It was a rebuild in 2005 and I think we need a bit of a rebuild again,” said Lennon as he reflected on what he described as a ‘fraught’ 2-1 win over Rangers on Sunday which put Celtic 13 points clear at the top of the Premiership and within touching distance of an eighth title in a row.

“It is reminiscent of 2005. It is a rebuilding job in the summer, no question about that. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. Hopefully, with the lead that we have now, we can start to plan a little bit more and be a little more forceful on it.”

Since replacing Rodgers on an interim basis at the end of February, Lennon admits he has so far been tip-toeing around the job. His priority was to ensure the minimum level of disruption to the formula which double-treble winning manager Rodgers had put in place.

As Celtic entered the closing stages on Sunday with the match in the balance at 1-1 and 10-man Rangers probing for an unlikely victory, Lennon was preparing himself for a far more proactive approach.

“It’s been difficult to stamp myself on this team,” he admitted. “I haven’t done it yet, I’ve just been going about it softly-softly.

“During the game, I was thinking ‘If this ends up 1-1, I’m going to be changing a lot of things or doing a lot more things my way’. But we got over the line with the winning goal.

“Maybe we can implement a bit more of what I want to do and how I want to play going into the final games of the season, but there’s nothing really broken, so not much to fix. It’s a really difficult balancing act. It’s a style of play that the players are used to and it’s a different style of play from what I’ve been used to. However, it works and you can’t change it overnight anyway.

“You can implement little things, but there were aspects of the game on Sunday in the second-half that I wasn’t happy with in terms of managing the game. We should have done that a lot better.

“I think from the outside looking in, people look at it and think: That’s an easy job, you are just picking up the reins from where Brendan left off. But there are adjustments that you have to make to the staff, the training structure, the players and the mentality of the players.

“I didn’t make this situation. I have come in and answered the call and we are doing alright. I would hope people would think the club is in a safe pair of hands. We have won four out of five games since I came in. We have got over a big psychological hurdle on Sunday and we are now 13 points ahead in the league.

“Since I have come in, we have extended our lead by five points and we are in the Scottish Cup semi-final. We haven’t done a lot wrong. I am not going to reinvent the wheel. It’s simplicity. Just the little nuts and bolts of the game that we can do better.”

All three Old Firm matches this season have been won by a single goal by the home team and Lennon believes Rangers are a far more threatening proposition under Steven Gerrard’s management. He remains confident, however, that Celtic retain the edge over their greatest rivals.

“Yes, Rangers have improved,” added Lennon. “When they came to Easter Road in December to play Hibs when I was manager there, they played really well. They had to improve on last year because they were all over the place a little bit. Steven has gone in and added a bit of steel.

“They have good energy and have some good players there, but we just have that little bit better at the minute and long may that continue.

“On our showing in the first hour on Sunday, we were well ahead of them. To be fair, it might have been the last throw of the dice for Rangers and they threw everything at it, but we overcame that.

“It was fraught. It shouldn’t have been as fraught as we made it because at half-time we were a goal up and had a man extra. There was a little bit of naivety from us at times in the game.

“We were a little bit passive in the second half in terms of our pressing. We sat off Rangers and [Ryan] Kent and [Daniel] Candeias kept coming off and getting turned. We really should have been 10 yards further up the pitch to stop the attacks around about the halfway line. To be fair to Rangers, they played well. You have to give them credit. It was a cracking game of football.

“We just have to keep it going now. We know what’s at stake to win the league. Three more wins will do it, so that’s the focus - to try and get it done as quickly as possible.”