NEIL Lennon has revealed his desire to join Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill in the pantheon of great Celtic managers by winning the domestic treble, although the newly-crowned champions’ chief executive Pater Lawwell last night admitted that Scottish football needs to be more competitive.
In the aftermath of Lennon’s third consecutive title win as manager, clinched with Wednesday night’s 5-1 win over Partick Thistle at Firhill, he laid out his ambitions for further success at the club.
While reaching the Champions League group stage on an annual basis remains a priority, Lennon believes it would need a squad-building investment of around £200 million, way beyond Celtic’s current means, to become significant contenders in Europe beyond that. But, as he looks to further improve his team next season, Lennon has his sights firmly fixed on a monopoly of domestic silverware.
Only two managers in Celtic’s history – Stein in 1966-67 and 1968-69 and O’Neill in 2000-01 – have led the club to the treble of league, Scottish Cup and League Cup. Since the feat became possible following the inception of the League Cup 68 years ago, the treble has only been won 10 times. Rangers claimed the other seven under Bill Struth (1948-49), Scot Symon (1963-64), Jock Wallace (1975-76 and 1977-78), Walter Smith (1992-93), Dick Advocaat (1998-99) and Alex McLeish (2002-03).
Lennon, who has now won five trophies in four years as Celtic manager, saw this season’s treble bid end in September with a shock home defeat to Morton in the third round of the League Cup. Having also lost at home to Aberdeen in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup last month, Lennon is keen to make amends in the domestic knockout tournaments next season.
“I’d like to win a treble because that’s a difficult thing to do and I’ve come close to winning it a couple of times,” said Lennon.
“They are tough to achieve, especially when you are playing Champions League football as well. But that’s the incentive for me and an ambitious target. Whether or not I achieve it is another thing.
“I know the footsteps I’m walking in – I’ll probably never be remembered in the folklore of the club like some other managers. But I want to make my stamp on the place. I think that’s vital and it’s relative now. I hope people will remember me for a few years to come. Currently it’s important to find a team – without Rangers being around – who plays well in the current climate and plays better than everyone else as well.
“Everyone will make comparisons with other managers but we live in different times. I’m the manager of Celtic currently and I want to make the most of that time. Reaching milestones is important to me personally but not in the big scheme of things. What is important is the growth of the club. I would love us to be competing in the Champions League every year but it would cost £200m to build a team to be able to do that.
“It’s small steps for us. The Champions league group stage wasn’t great this season after a brilliant one last year. We will draw on that experience and try to qualify again next season. It’s important not just for Celtic but for the game here that we have that going into the season.”
Having joined Willie Maley, Stein and Gordon Strachan as the only Celtic managers to win three successive titles, Lennon remains frustrated that he does not already have four in a row to his credit, something previously only achieved by Maley and Stein. Lennon lost out on the championship on the final day of his first full season in the job.
“That was up against Walter Smith, who was a magnificent Rangers manager,” added Lennon. “I’m disappointed we’re not sitting on four now. We had the opportunity then and we let it go. But we’ve learned from that and we’ve been really consistent over the last three years.
“Predominantly this year we’ve been fantastic and I’ve really enjoyed this season. I willenjoy the moment of the title win as there is a lot of planning goes into it, a lot of sleepless nights too.
“I don’t think you take stock of it enough. I said to the players that they should savour it because it can pass so quickly. We’ll enjoy this moment and we’ll enjoy being at home on Saturday against Ross County in front of our own fans.”
Lennon insists he is unconcerned by criticism of Celtic’s achievements from those who believe the absence of Rangers from the top flight has diminished the title win. “I can’t change people’s perceptions on things,” he added. “I understand it but I can’t change it. You try to, but people will always be blinkered one way or the other. My ambition while I’m here is to win trophies and produce good players along the way. I feel I have two world-class players in Virgil van Dijk and Fraser Forster. Whether or not I can keep them here is another thing. But the fact I brought them here from nowhere is something I can be proud of.
“We maybe still need to improve on the recruitment side of things a little, though, because we didn’t get it all right last summer. That is now the key between now and when the Champions League qualifiers start in July.”
With Rangers still experiencing financial difficulties ahead of their move into the second tier of the Scottish game, Celtic fans are predicting their run will stretch to a record ten titles in a row. And Lawwell has admitted there needs to be change to keep Scottish football competitive. “There are challenges ahead in terms of creating meaningful games,” he told Sky Sports News. “No question, that is one of the challenges that Scottish football faces.
“I think we are realising that as a nation and we need to find some form of solution.”
Lawwell knows he might also face a fight to hold on to manager Lennon following the comfortable title win.
“The consequence of success is that people become intrigued with our manager, your coaches, your scouts, and then eventually maybe court them,” he said. “Neil, I think, is a big part of Celtic and Celtic is a big part of him. I think it would be a wrench for Neil to leave – however, he is an ambitious guy, a highly-talented guy, and through time who knows? But hopefully we can provide the motivation and context for him to stay here.”