Neil Lennon: Going past Martin O’Neill is nice, because I generally don’t beat him at anything

Northern Irishman set for his 54th European match as Celtic boss - moving him one clear of his mentor’s tally

Neil Lennon with his mentor Martin O'Neill during their time together at Celtic. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS.
Neil Lennon with his mentor Martin O'Neill during their time together at Celtic. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS.

Getting the better of Martin O’Neill isn’t something Neil Lennon was ever accustomed to during his playing days under the stern, shrewd and inspirational guidance of his mentor at both Leicester City and Celtic.

But O’Neill will be surpassed by his protege in the record books on Wednesday night when Lennon takes charge of Celtic’s Champions League second qualifying round tie against Ferencvaros at Parkhead.

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It will be Lennon’s 54th European match as Celtic manager, moving him one clear of O’Neill’s tally during his memorable tenure in the east end of Glasgow.

“Going past Martin is nice, because I generally don’t beat him at anything really,” reflected Lennon with a grin.

“It’s a nice milestone to have talked about – being alongside Martin in any capacity is great. But that’s not at the forefront of my mind going into this game. Hopefully I can celebrate it afterwards with a proper result.”

Remarkably, only three men have now overseen more European club matches as managers of Scottish clubs than Lennon, who also had eight continental games as Hibs boss. Jim McLean tops the list with 84 at Dundee United, Jock Stein took charge of 82 (71 with Celtic and 11 with Dunfermline) and Walter Smith had 79 with Rangers.

It’s now ten years since Lennon’s first taste of European football as a manager, a 3-0 defeat against Braga in a Champions League qualifier, and he has savoured his coaching development at that level which has seen him enjoy memorable victories over the likes of Barcelona and Lazio during his two spells in charge of Celtic.

“It’s been wonderful and I’m looking forward to hopefully more games in Europe this year,” he added.

“We’ve had some great highs with a few sore ones along the way too. But it’s a great challenge as a coach to try and get the best out of the players when you come up against some of the best coaches, players and teams.

“So I hopefully have many more ahead of me. But this is one of the most important ones, because it’s the next one.

“It would just be a good achievement to get to the Champions League group stage again. I’ve done it twice as manager and I want it 
again for the club and for the players.”

Lennon has been determined to leave nothing to chance in getting ready for what he expects to be a stern challenge from Hungarian champions Ferencvaros. The Budapest club have revived their reputation under coach Serhiy Rebrov, the former Tottenham and Ukraine striker, and were convincing 2-0 winners over Djurgardens of Sweden in the first qualifying round last week.

“It’s a game we’ve given a lot of preparation time to,” said Lennon. “We have focused really hard and knuckled down Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and are in our own little bubble, so nothing is getting in or out and our concentration levels are very good.

“We know Ferencvaros are a very good side having negotiated their last tie very comfortably. They have a good set-up and structure to their team with good athleticism. So this is a step up for us in comparison to our 6-0 win against KR Reykjavik in the first round last week.

“It’s fair comment to say Ferencvaros are a stronger team than we’d hope to get at this stage. When you think at 
this stage last season we played Nomme Kalju of Estonia and we negotiated that one with no problem. But this is tough.

“They were in the Europa League last year and in their group they were undefeated away from home against Espanyol, Moscow and Ludogorets so they’re definitely a team to be respected.

“Patience might be key. Ferencvaros are very good on counter attack and at times are set up very well defensively as well. They’ll be coming to win the game as it’s a one-off tie but I imagine they’ll do that by trying to stay in the game for as long as possible and then make the advantage count if they get one. While we’ll try and impose our style on them when we can we also have to be mindful of not conceding too. We can’t leave ourselves too vulnerable on the counter.

“We’ve had two clean sheets and seven goals in our last two games. I was pleased with the intensity we played with against Dundee United on Saturday. I didn’t think the game last Tuesday against Reykjavik needed to be as aggressive, but this one is different.

“We’ll need to be concentrated and fit, so I think the game on Saturday will be excellent preparation for what lies ahead against Ferencvaros.”

While Celtic have handled the surreal environment of closed door matches well so far this season, Lennon admits it remains a concern how it could impact on fixtures as crucial as these Champions League qualifiers.

“It’s not normal,” he said. “We can pretend. People say it is going to be the new normal for however long it is going to be, but it’s not normal what we are going through.

“It’s easy for people to say you should be able to handle it better, but you just don’t know. You don’t know how individuals are going to react to the lack of atmosphere or support. It’s not what they have been used to.

“The mentality of the players has been very good since we have been back and we are going to need more of it. From a coach’s point of view, you do miss the support, the roar and, as a player, it can mean so much, especially when you are in big games.

“So that’s a big miss for the players. But they’ve adapted pretty well to everything we’ve asked of them so far.

“This is a game where we know the crowd would have been really important to us, but we’re not going to have that. So we need to generate our own motivation, intensity and tempo to have that aggression in our play from the off.”

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