Mellow Neil Lennon has no beef with ex-team-mate pundits who criticise Celtic

The pundits are only doing their jobs, says Celtic's manager Neil Lennon. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
The pundits are only doing their jobs, says Celtic's manager Neil Lennon. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
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They like to give liberal use to that naff phrase ‘Celtic family’ at the home of the Scottish champions. As the fall-out from the club’s hara-kiri style Champions League qualifying exit to Cluj reached the thermonuclear level, Neil Lennon has been forced to face up to the fact that there is nothing quite like being turned on by your nearest and dearest.

All too many of the club’s supporters who populate the blogosphere operate at deranged levels on a daily basis. Lennon has more to contend with than those, though, with the ex-Celtic players commentariat wading in this week. Chris Sutton, Andy Walker, Pat Bonner and Scott McDonald have all, understandably, been in castigating mode since the utterly needless 4-3 home defeat by the Romanian champions on Tuesday.

Lennon is sanguine about this fraternity, and in particular his friend Sutton who took him to task over his decision to field Callum McGregor at left-back, a decision about which the manager is unrepentant. It is an indication that in his second spell in charge Lennon is patently serious about being far removed from the man of old; a figure he accepts simply wouldn’t have been able to keep his counsel in the face of slatings from former team-mates.

“You have to take the criticism,” the 48-year-old said. “Sutty is a pundit so he has got to do his job. That is Chris’s job. If you are going to take it personally then....Chris, the Andy Walkers of this world, [John] Hartson: they are doing their job, which is giving their opinion. Whether I want to listen to it is another thing. I don’t take it personally. They will see the game the way they see it and I will see the game the way I see it.

“[Perspective] come with experience. Ten years ago I would have been on the phone to Sutty. ‘See you, you such and such, what are you talking about?’ You learn. You can’t always expect the team to do what you want them to do. They are going to make mistakes. You have to accept that and understand it, but it is a bitter pill to swallow.

“We have had a hangover, there might be a bit more of a hangover, a prolonged one, but we have to work through that and gauge the Europa League ties when they come.

“At 2-1 we were rampant but as a manager you can’t legislate for the goals we conceded second half. But we have an outstanding team. I think we have the makings of a very good team. What we can’t do is let this result derail anything we are trying to do.

“I understand the criticism, but I don’t become a bad manager on one half of football or one night. I have been in the Champions League and know what it means to manage and play in it and it hurts.”

The new equilibrious Lennon doesn’t just appear able to avoid spats with pundits. He has also succeeded in restraining himself from pointing fingers at culpable players. A key turning point on Tuesday was the penalty conceded as the result of an inexplicable slap at the ball from Scott Brown after Celtic had shaken off a dreadful first half to storm into a 2-1 lead. There was no bus that Lennon sought to hurl his captain towards because of that destructive intervention.

“We are not here to make scapegoats or individualise,” he said. “Ten years ago I probably would have done. I’ve learned from that as well. It is a collective. We missed good chances and if we had taken our chances we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. You can analyse the defeat in many, many ways. He’s disappointed, obviously, but he has been a huge player for the club for a long, long time and will continue to be.”

If there was no indication that Celtic were about to implode before the Cluj return, the possibility of worse to follow this Thursday in their Europa League play-off that will bring AIK Stockholm to Glasgow has been ramped up. The reaction in the event of the club failing to secure European football up to Christmas for only the third time in 18 seasons doesn’t bear thinking about for Lennon and the Celtic board, specifically the already lashed and lambasted chief executive Peter Lawwell.

“I think Cluj will be fresh in the players’ minds and a real motivation,” Lennon added. “I think this team has got good things to come, I really do, and I’m sure we can add to it as well. I mean, I’ve made a domestic start I’ve never come near, with the 7-0 and 5-2 . We just didn’t manage the [Cluj] game as well as we probably should have.

“The way we have been playing domestically, you know you are just thinking ‘carry on, carry on.’ We were decent in Cluj, not passive, but the first 45 minutes we were just passive. Maybe people will say it is because McGregor wasn’t in the midfield. That could be an argument. I still maintain that it didn’t have a huge bearing on the outcome. People can argue that point with me.”

There is no shortage of those who will. Vigorously.