Neil Lennon: I need European success to be a Celtic great
There is the potential for Neil Lennon to stand alone as the manager of a Scottish club. No individual before him has led a team to a tenth consecutive league title, as naturally will be the Celtic manager’s quest in the forthcoming campaign. To stand alongside his own club’s trackside greats though, domestic domination doesn’t feel enough for him.
With nine trophies across his two spells at the helm of the Scottish champions, only Willie Maley and Jock Stein have lifted more – and many more – honours as Celtic manager, with 30 and 25 respectively. Moreover, with the League Cup win last December, Lennon joined Billy McNeill, Alex McLeish and David Hay as the only men to have won every major Scottish honour as both player and manager.
It is what frames the glorious tenure of Stein, though, and Lennon’s long-time mentor Martin O’Neill that current incumbent seeks to gild his stewardship. Stein and O’Neill are the only two men to guide Celtic to European finals. And while there is zero prospect of replicating Stein’s 1967 European Cup triumph – simply making it through qualifiers to the Champions League is now the measure of success in premier continental competition – Lennon has forever refused to believe he was part of the last Celtic team that will contest a European final.
That came with the O’Neill-inspired run to the 2003 Uefa Cup showpiece. The victory over Liverpool at Anfield during that campaign proved the last occasion Celtic defeated a team from a top-five ranked nation on their own soil until last season’s Europa League adventures. Success over Lazio in Rome made Lennon the first manager of the club to win in Italy, as well as top a European group. The Irishman suggests he needs to back that up to ensure his legacy. It “depends how people view it” whether he can have the accolade of being “mentioned in the same breath” as Stein, Maley and O’Neill, he believes.
“With what Stein and Martin did, Europe’s the port of call for me. Can I progress Celtic in Europe as well as being strong domestically?” said Lennon. “That’s what we always look to at the start of every season. Can we make inroads because that’s really where the gravitas comes on top of the domestic stuff. I’ve got a long way to go in my own mind to be up there with the likes of Stein and O’Neill, but I’ve got plenty of time hopefully and good days ahead of me to look to achieve that.”
His age would suggest he does have time on his side. Now 48 – he will be 49 in a fortnight – he is currently the age O’Neill was when he took on Celtic two decades ago this month and restored their credibility both at home and abroad. “I’m hoping the best years of management are in front of me. I’ve had ten years,” Lennon said.
“I came into management very early on and it’s amazing to think it’s 20 years since Martin came. If I could have similar successes to Martin I’d be absolutely delighted. The impact he had on Celtic and it’s still there now 20 years on. If in this second period I can have a similar impact on the club and the game here I’d be absolutely thrilled.
“I’m going for my sixth title as a manager, and I want more. It would be the tenth in a row for the club but we’re not thinking about ten, we’re just thinking about winning the championship.
“There will be a lot of challenges we’ll have to overcome. We’ve won our 11th domestic trophy in a row which is an absolutely incredible statistic at any club. It shows remarkable consistency from the players. The motivation is there to continue that run as long as we can. Then in 15 or 20 years we’ll be talking about these great players in the club’s tapestry.”
And, surely, their manager.
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