Tom English: Neil Lennon deserves the prize

Deadlines have passed and votes have been cast in the end-of-season awards merry-go-round with the humble scribblers soon to dish out their gongs after the players did so last weekend.
It's moments like this clutching the Premier League Trophy, that could keep Lennon at Parkhead for at least some time yet. Picture: Robert PerryIt's moments like this clutching the Premier League Trophy, that could keep Lennon at Parkhead for at least some time yet. Picture: Robert Perry
It's moments like this clutching the Premier League Trophy, that could keep Lennon at Parkhead for at least some time yet. Picture: Robert Perry

While Danny McGrain ever-so-slightly overstated Neil Lennon’s case for manager of the year the other day – the great man said that Lennon should be knighted for beating Barcelona – it would have been something of a travesty if the Celtic manager hadn’t got the nod for the football writers’ prize, having already missed out to Allan Johnston in the PFA Scotland ceremony.

There were several candidates but Lennon stood out above all others. A huge claim could be made for Stuart McCall and the constant improvement on a pretty meagre budget that he has brought to Fir Park. Derek Adams deserves a shout. So, too, Terry Butcher and, of course, Johnston, who has won two trophies after inheriting a relegated and demoralised crew at Queen of the South.

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If Lennon’s candidacy had been based purely on the domestic game then, frankly, he wouldn’t have got near the award. Sure, this has been a championship-winning season for Celtic with the trophy being handed over yesterday. It looked like an achievement of great significance. It sure as hell sounded like it. If an alien had suddenly fetched up at Celtic Park and saw what was going on they’d have thought that it was a seismic event.

Celtic’s league campaign has been nothing to write home about. Certainly nothing to make you hand out awards. In the league (and in the wounding League Cup semi-final loss to St Mirren) Celtic have been ponderous too often, their manager regularly reaching for the angry button in trying to wake them up from their domestic slumber. They have won the championship with a record low points total, losing and drawing too many games for this league title to stand alongside any of the others they have won. They have dropped points in 14 of their 36 matches.

No. Given the monstrous advantage they have over their rivals in budgetary terms, Lennon would struggle to get in the top four of the managers’ award if it was based purely on what happened in the SPL, championship or no championship.

What elevated him was Europe. Consider what the season would have been like had Celtic not taken us all on an adventure that lasted into March.

What would we have lived through? The funereal drumbeat of league reconstruction, the politics and power struggle at Rangers, the implosion of Dunfermline, the trauma at Hearts. There’s been some great stuff in other places but the landscape without those European games would have been bleak, as grey as November. An endless winter.

For too long Scotland has been crying out for relevance on the international stage and rarely does it come. Mostly, the only occasion in recent times when the outside world has deigned to look Scotland’s way is when the Old Firm have served up some toxic brew or when an institution is on the brink of collapse. The Sky Sports News cameras have rarely come here on the back of a good news story. They haven’t tended to “cross to Scotland” with a cheery air.

Nearly always, with the occasional exception, they do so in order to broadcast the poison, the dark side of football. Sectarianism, bombs in the post, reaction on the riots in Manchester, spats over banners and songs. Without this stuff over the last number of years Scottish football would have been of little interest to Sky. They pay for the football, yes. But mostly they want to tap into the madness.

That has lessened hugely since Celtic and Rangers were separated. Personally, their rivalry is not missed, but many do miss it and a good portion of them are Celtic fans, even if they never care to admit it openly. Celtic have missed what Rangers provide at their best. Rangers could have kept Celtic on their toes rather than freewheeling. It’s fair to say that Lennon’s team’s domestic slip-ups probably wouldn’t have happened – not in such large numbers at any rate – if Rangers had been setting the pace or breathing down their neck. It wasn’t a lack of ability that made them drop so many points, it was the lack of fear factor, the absence of a rival laying claim to the title.

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Celtic are a better team than their SPL performances have shown. We can say that because we’ve seen them in Europe. Everybody has seen them in Europe. For a while, they changed how others saw Scottish football. They brought international respect on account of their football rather than international fascination on account of the kind of unsavoury things that the Scottish game usually hits the headlines for.

On the night that Celtic beat Barcelona, the European game stopped looking at the game in this country in the manner of a scientist looking at a rat.

Celtic played a dozen games in Europe, won seven of them and drew another. The ones that they lost were to the team that are about to win La Liga, the team that have just won Serie A and the team that are in pole position to win the Portuguese league, having also made their way into this week’s final of the Europa League, where they will play Chelsea. They also drew with Benfica at home and only lost to Barcelona away because of a late, late winner. They beat HJK Helsinki home and away, beat Helsingborgs (currently top of the Swedish league) home and away, they beat Spartak Moscow home and away.

Of course, they had the benefit of good fortune along the way, but no side gets that lucky that often if the only thing they have going for them is a kindly bounce of the ball.

Fraser Forster was arguably the goalkeeper of the group stage. Victor Wanyama, in the games against Barcelona, was as good as any central midfielder in the competition. There were remarkable performances from many players in that campaign and all of them were brought in by Lennon, a manager who has developed considerably while away from the distraction and the intensity of Old Firm football.

I’m not sure if Lennon misses the white heat of battle against a competitive Rangers but his management has improved without it, no question.

He is now being talked of as a contender for the Everton job. It may prove too early for him. Lennon has a huge ambition but has little experience and could do with another year in Glasgow, another shot at the Champions League, another season to mature. It would be no great hardship. He’s at a club that he loves, he’s winning trophies and he’s got a European challenge to come. That is where he excelled this season. For that alone, he deserves the prize.