Neil Lennon explains why he is more relaxed ahead of Rangers cup final than when Celtic faced Hearts in May

Celtic manager Neil Lennon looking tense ahead of the Scottish Cup final against Hearts in May. Picture: SNS
Celtic manager Neil Lennon looking tense ahead of the Scottish Cup final against Hearts in May. Picture: SNS
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If tomorrow’s League Cup final had been built up any more, the fear might have been it would block out the sun.

It’s the first decider between the Glasgow behemoths in close on nine years; an occasion that will decide whether Celtic continue the longest unbroken trophy-winning haul in the history of the Scottish game or Rangers end the longest period without a major honour residing in the Ibrox trophy room.

It is also a game that will see either Neil Lennon claim the only domestic trophy that has eluded him as a manager or 
Steven Gerrard win his first piece of silverware as a boss.

For Lennon, though, it isn’t even his biggest final in seven months.

The Celtic manager cut a quietly assured figure as he previewed the Hampden showpiece at the national stadium yesterday. As well he might after appearing anointed in these early stages of his second coming as Celtic manager. He is in a different place entirely
from the eve of last season’s Scottish Cup final when Lennon was interim boss and the club faithful were still reeling from the aftershock of Brendan Rodgers’ exit when completing a third straight domestic clean sweep had become an all-consuming obsession.

All of which made May’s final against Hearts a more stomach-churning occasion for Lennon than the skirmish in Glasgow’s southside this week.

“It was really heavy that one,” said the 48-year-old of the game in which Celtic came from behind to win 2-1 and after which Lennon was installed as permanent manager. “[This feels more relaxed] for me. I don’t know about any of the players. There is less talk. I mean everything was about the treble treble going into that.

“We had to win the quarter-final otherwise I might not get the job. Had to win the semi-final or I might not get the job. Had to win the final or I might not get the job. But they came through it brilliantly. This one: if you lose it, it would be a bit of a downer psychologically. There is no question of that. If you win it, then it’s business as usual. We go on to Cluj and then we have a real heavy schedule of league games before the break.”

Lennon, of course, has gone the distance in 15 cup competitions as player and manager at Celtic, winning nine and losing six finals. Experience that counts when dealing with any butterflies.

“You don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure,” Lennon said. “I don’t know how I’ll feel when I wake up on Sunday. I’m sure I will still have the wee knot in the stomach, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

“I want all the prep done by tomorrow so that we can go away Saturday evening and relax, maybe enjoy the boxing [Anthony Joshua’s world title fight], switch off for a little
while. I think that’s important. Then we will focus again come Sunday. Once the game starts, you are fine. You are in the throes of the game and your concentration levels are totally on the game. Sometimes in the build-up it can get a bit fraught. I wouldn’t say anxious but you do get a bit giddy.

“[But] these guys have got vast experience now, whether it be League Cup finals or [Scottish] Cup finals or winning leagues. I don’t take it for granted. There is a relentlessness about them in terms of chasing trophies. They’ve got the bit between their teeth.

“That was quite evident in the semi-final [a 5-2 win over Hibernian]. It was a pressure game and they played brilliantly. They were quite free in the way they played. I’m hoping they can bring that sort of mindset into the game on Sunday.”

Lennon doesn’t downplay what his opposite number Gerrard can bring to bear on rivals Rangers in the former England captain’s first final as a manager. Gerrard’s glittering 17 years as the most crucial cog in the Liverpool engine room ensures that – a period during which he played in nine finals, and won seven, most famously almost single-handedly dragging his club back from a three-goal deficit to triumph on penalties over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League showdown in Istanbul.

“Steven was an inspirational player, one of the best of all-time in the Premier League,” the Celtic manager said.

“He is a Liverpool great in an era when they weren’t winning titles and European Cups. I always think of Istanbul and his individual performance is up there with any of them. Maybe that will rub off on the players and inspire them.

“Rangers have definitely improved but then, so have we. We have our own targets and objectives for the game and the players don’t listen to the outside noise. They keep things calm and that experience of these occasions is invaluable.”