Celtic much stronger this season claims Neil Lennon

Neil Lennon with the Ladbrokes Premiership  trophy Celtic won for the eighth time in a row last season.Neil Lennon with the Ladbrokes Premiership  trophy Celtic won for the eighth time in a row last season.
Neil Lennon with the Ladbrokes Premiership trophy Celtic won for the eighth time in a row last season.
It would be easy to feel that there could be a blasé element to a Celtic flag day for Neil Lennon. The past two decades have been strewn with them for him, after all. Yet, when he stands trackside as the widows of club legends Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers tug on the rope to unfurl the club’s eighth league flag in as many years before today’s Premiership curtain?raiser against St Johnstone, the ?experience is entitled to give him a special tingle.

It was back in 2013, at the start of his fourth and final season of his first stint as manager, that he last experienced such an occasion. In the intervening six years, the 48-year-old must have wondered if he would ever again have such a vantage point on the pre-match scene that will unfold at Celtic Park this afternoon.

Lennon has maintained he is a more rounded figure second time around as Celtic manager. And in enjoying a “nice and calm” start to his first summer back – in which he has shown no edginess that used to come to the fore as he was required to negotiate Champions League qualifiers and domestic duties – the Irishman is proving as good as his word. There appears room for sentiment now.

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“As you get older you enjoy it a little
bit more because these moments tend to pass by quickly,” he said. “You just take it in and then focus on the game. Looking forward to the game, looking forward to the domestic campaign starting and it’s brilliant to see the wives of Billy and Stevie over there as well. It will be emotional for them and for everyone associated with the club.”

In his spell as interim following Brendan Rodgers leaving for Leicester City, Lennon was judged harshly in how Celtic proved so often ponderous and lacking pizazz as they produced the performances to wrap up the league and Scottish Cup and reel in a treble treble. Across home and away wins against Sarajevo and, with a 2-0 success in Estonia this week, Nomme Kalju in the early rounds, a certain vitality appears to have returned to their play. Lennon puts that down to working with close to a full deck, when in the closing months of last season he was way short of that. “I think so,” he said of being better at dealing with Champions League qualifiers, with a third- round first leg to come against Cluj in Romania on Wednesday. I know how difficult it is, I know the importance of it. But I’m trying not to overthink it. I just need to get the balance right and the players give you such a lift.

“The likes of [Leigh] Griffiths and Lewis Morgan have done really well, adding threat to the team allied to the core we already have. We’re still waiting on Bayo, he played 70 minutes 
on Wednesday – so that’s another one we can add. We have more options than we had. I think we are in a lot stronger position than we were at the end of last season.

“We have the luxury, which we didn’t before, of giving Callum [McGregor] and Jamesie Forrest and [Ryan] Christie and [Kristoffer] Ajer a break on Wednesday. It’s good to see there is depth and it’s a seamless transition.”

Lennon, indeed, is relaxed about opening the season with his centre-back pairing from midweek – new £7m signing Christopher Jullien and Jozo Simunovic – suspended. That opens the way for Hatem Abd Elhamed to be handed his debut.

The £1.3m capture from Hapoel Beer Sheva isn’t unusual in that he can play right-back or centre-back. He is relatively unusual in arriving at Celtic at the age of 28, out of kilter
with the club strategy of signing 
marketable young talent.

“Hatem is ready,” said Lennon, who reiterated that Kieran Tierney continues to be affected by the pain from his pelvic injury as well as the uncertainty over his future, which will be settled “one way or another” in the week that Arsenal have to meet Celtic’s £25m valuation.

“He [Elhamed] has been very impressive. He played 45 minutes on Wednesday in a closed-doors game against Wolves. He came through unscathed. He might need a bit more game-time but right now, we don’t have that luxury. Hatem is 28 and people speak about players at that age as if they are ancient these days. He is at his peak and we hope to get four good years out of him.

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“You sign players in their late 20s these days and people say, ‘Oh, that’s old’’ It’s not. I was 29 when I joined Celtic. Sutton, Thompson, Hartson were all touching 30. We were here for a few years. We are always looking for younger players and we still have that with prominent players in their early 20s. But it’s good to have a bit of 
nous too.”