Why Neil Lennon’s return to Celtic is both a risk and a safe bet

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Bringing in Neil Lennon on a short-term basis makes sense for Celtic but the move isn’t without risk for both parties, writes Patrick McPartlin

It’s been fewer than 30 days since Neil Lennon and Hibs went their separate ways, and a little over ten days since the newly unemployed Northern Irishman voiced his fancy for a tilt at a management job in Europe.

Neil Lennon directs his Hibs players during the 2-0 win over Celtic in December 2018 with Brendan Rodgers watching on in the background. Picture: SNS Group

Neil Lennon directs his Hibs players during the 2-0 win over Celtic in December 2018 with Brendan Rodgers watching on in the background. Picture: SNS Group

Yet today dawned with the 47-year-old being lined up for a surprise return to the club he represented as a player and manager for more than a decade between 2000 and 2014.

Lennon is understood to have cancelled plans to fly out to the Middle East on punditry business, fuelling rumours that a return is imminent. Hoops coach John Kennedy is expected to take charge of Celtic for their trip to Tynecastle on Ladbrokes Premiership duty on Wednesday night, potentially handing Lennon a return to the dugout just in time for a William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final against Hibs at Easter Road.

In today’s Scotsman, Lennon is quoted as saying it wouldn’t be a “huge surprise” if Hibs beat Celtic. Facing his last club in his first match in charge is one thing; potentially losing to his former employers and former players on their own turf, and ending the chances of a third consecutive treble, is another story entirely.

In many ways, however, Lennon returning to Celtic - even for a short period - makes perfect sense for both individual and club.

He knows the set-up at Parkhead, he’s worked under it before, he is only too aware of what’s expected of him, and he has a good relationship with the Hoops hierarchy. He’s also managed them in Europe, including masterminding a 2-1 victory over Barcelona.

His record in Europe as Celtic boss is decent: 15 wins from 36 matches. Granted, the majority came in qualifiers against teams like Cliftonville and HJK Helsinki, but there were also wins against Ajax and Braga as well as Barca.

It could be argued his performances in Europe were all the more impressive with fewer resources than those enjoyed by Rodgers.

Assuming he does return to Celtic Park, Lennon will inherit a squad sitting eight points clear at the top of the league, with one domestic trophy in the bag and another - the Scottish Cup - within touching distance. The club’s exit from the Europa League means the former Hoops midfielder can focus on the league and cup with no other distractions. If Lennon plans to take the club on an interim basis until the summer then it’s something of a free hit - Rodgers has already done most of the hard work this term, and it may very well boost his chances of a new permanent post if he does well - either at Celtic or elsewhere.

Also to Lennon’s advantage is the presence of characters such as Scott Brown, James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Kieran Tierney; players who “get” Celtic, and can make the 47-year-old’s life easier. Much is made of Steven Naismith pulling the strings for Hearts as a de facto player-manager - but Brown is very good at doing the same for Celtic, which could also give Lennon an easier ride.

He knows the lie of the land, too, having coached Hibs through the last season and a half in the Scottish Premiership. He knows the other teams, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

The risk for Lennon is that things don’t go according to plan.

The former Bolton boss may also have his work cut out in winning over some sections of the Celtic support. Regardless of the facts surrounding his departure from Easter Road, it’s not unthinkable that a percentage of the Celtic support will assume he was sacked, with Hibs languishing in eighth despite having been second in the early stages of the campaign.

Details of his Hibs exit aside, Lennon will have the unenviable task of following a man who delivered an historic double treble and was closing in on a third.

Rodgers was praised by Peter Lawwell for winning the first treble with “Ronny Deila’s team”. It’s unlikely Lenny will be afforded the same treatment if he leads Celtic to a third treble with the former Liverpool manager’s squad.

He also runs the risk of getting less leeway. Due to his success in his first spell at Parkhead - and also because of the standards set under Rodgers - fans won’t accept anything less than the best.

Completing a third treble won’t do Lennon’s future employment prospects any harm at all, but he’ll have to hit the ground running in yhis second spell at Celtic - for the club and for himself.