Let’s get one thing straight. The shock of discovering that Stiliyan Petrov is battling acute leukaemia will have overshadowed everything else for Lennon yesterday, even given the fact that the verdict from the High Court in Glasgow, where two men were convicted of plotting to send parcel bombs to the Celtic manager, was delivered so soon afterwards. No one could overestimate just how much this piece of grave medical news concerning Lennon’s former team-mate will have cast a gloom across Lennoxtown, where the sun has been beating down of late. Lennon, in a more light-hearted moment earlier this week, noted that he has resorted to the “factor duffel coat” lotion.
“Absolutely inconsolable”, he tweeted yesterday, after news of Petrov’s condition broke. The brutal business of life had again intruded on the manager’s existence, which seems to endlessly veer between the beatific and the turbulent.
Earlier this week, even after he had been sent to the stands at half-time in a rumbustious Old Firm fixture, he was tweeting about having the “best job in the world”, and how watching players train in the sun gives him such a buzz. His mood had become slightly darker yesterday afternoon. Just prior to the news about Petrov emerging he had posted the view that “there seems to be no balance in the Scottish media when it comes to us.” Lennon was back in his bunker, clearly cogitating over the amount of correspondence he has received from Vincent Lunny, the Scottish Football Association’s compliance office, following comments made about referees over the last fortnight, and which were inevitably reported in detail by the media.
Lennon’s only engagement with the public was via Twitter yesterday. He swerved his weekly press conference, due to take place at the club’s Lennoxtown training academy. Disappointing though it was that the manager should not be available prior to what might become such a significant weekend in his life, it was also understandable. A verdict was due in a court case where he was one of the victims. He also knew he would be asked to comment on the possibility that Celtic might clinch the title this weekend. It is a tricky one for the manager to speak about in public, since it rests on whether or not Rangers drop points this afternoon against Motherwell.
Celtic could, then, lift title No 43 against St Johnstone tomorrow afternoon. It will, of course, be the club’s first under Lennon, who, two years ago next month, had to sift through the wreckage of a 2-0 defeat to Ross County in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. Both the players and the then temporary manager were abused on their return to Parkhead that night. You imagine it will be somewhat different tomorrow, should Rangers have cleared the way for a championship party by coming unstuck at Fir Park. Celtic will then also be required to either win or draw against their in-form visitors from Perth.
Given the exalted way he speaks about the quest, sometimes it seems as though Lennon’s whole life has been spent waiting to lead Celtic to a championship as manager. He is on the verge of an achievement that might well set him on the path towards the pantheon where those such as Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill, his mentor, have been placed.
Indeed, it will surely be impossible to refuse him a measure of greatness should he achieve this first championship win, one which would lend considerably more weight to the claim that he is a manager of note than the sole Scottish Cup lifted last season. This triumph will have been claimed against a background of almost constant turmoil. Admittedly, the financial ructions at Rangers have to be taken into account, but then so must the pressure of being such a high-profile and controversial manager of an Old Firm club at the age of barely 40.
Being Neil Lennon must feel like watching a 24-hour news channel; there is barely any break from the remorseless churn of events. What marks him out as different is that he is at the centre of so much of the news.
He is a man with much on his plate. Just over ten months after nearly 60,000 supporters packed into Celtic Park to lend their support to their manager as a rampant Rangers clinched a third successive title at Kilmarnock, he has led the team to the brink of finally wrestling it back.
Should it happen then it is sure to be emotional. The scenes were powerful enough last year when it was confirmed Celtic were runners-up after letting slip a two-point lead in the run-in. The fans packed into Parkhead and barely allowed a moment to pass without a song of devotion being sung to the club and to their manager, who had been assaulted by a fan at Tynecastle less than a week earlier and who had also been the target for suspicious packages, a saga which neared a conclusion yesterday. The sentencing of the two men convicted has been deferred until next month.
After the full-time whistle of that final league game against Motherwell in May, Lennon expressed the hope that he might be able to concentrate on football next season. Some hope. And yet, the football alone almost did for him when the campaign started again in July. By October, as well as trailing a long way behind leaders Rangers in the league, his side were also three goals down at half-time against Kilmarnock.
Lennon, and the team, recovered, with the manager, on the eve of his 100th game in charge, even agreeing with the suggestion that he is a changed – and calmer – man. Yet who can predict what further trials have to be endured?
In the last few weeks alone he has helped carry the coffin of a friend and been asked to give evidence in court. Perhaps Lennon can be forgiven his outbursts, which have started to become more frequent and intemperate, again. But then perhaps, in the midst of glory, he will be able to let things be tomorrow. A championship win is a powerful enough response to those he seems to believe give neither himself or his club enough credit.