Neil Lennon: ‘We should be playing for tenth title next season’

For Neil Lennon, the narrative surrounding next season will be dominated by nine-in-a-row.

Neil Lennon was confirmed as Celtic manager yesterday and he said he was a much more rounded person now. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Neil Lennon was confirmed as Celtic manager yesterday and he said he was a much more rounded person now. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

The next staging post on Celtic’s quest for a record-breaking ten consecutive league titles, so desperately craved by their supporters, will define the success or otherwise of Lennon’s second spell as permanent manager of the club.

As he was confirmed in the post following his three-month interim stint which saw the domestic treble treble set up by Brendan Rodgers
safely completed, Lennon reflected that Celtic should already be just one step away from the Holy Grail of ten-in-a-row.

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Lennon is still haunted by a midweek trip to the Highlands in May 2011 which ultimately cost him the league title in the first full season of his previous spell as manager.

The 3-2 defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle cost Celtic the initiative in a closely-fought race with Rangers who went on to triumph by a single point on the last day of the season.

While Lennon subsequently went on to win the title in each of his next three campaigns in charge, setting the current sequence of domination in motion, his motivation remains fuelled by memories of the one that got away.

“We should have won the league that year,” reflected Lennon. “It’s all ifs, buts and maybes but we had it in our own hands with a few games to go and let that one slip. I’m owed one, I think.

“Does it still nag away? Of course it does. We could be on nine-in-a-row going into ten. To lose the league in that fashion was tough. We got to two cup finals as well, winning one and losing one. It was an exciting season but ultimately we fell short on the big one.

“There was always a hunger there for me to rectify that. Since then, things have obviously changed enormously for the club in terms of domestic dominance.

“It’s still a difficult job but now I am older, I have a good backroom team already in place and a core group of players who are winners.

“Initially when I came in back in 2010, it was a huge challenge after Tony Mowbray had left. You had Walter Smith on the other side of the city at Rangers who had won two titles in a row.

“We had a bit of a rebuild to do then with Artur Boruc and Aiden McGeady going, who were hugely talented players. We had to do a major job on the team.

“I prefer the position I’m coming into this time. Because of the experience I’ve got as well, I know what I’m going into.

“I know there is going to be pressure again, but there is huge pressure when you are in your first year and people are sort of doubting you. I am almost ten years down the line. I have won trophies here, promotions elsewhere and developed good players along the way. I am far more rounded now.”

Lennon left Celtic of his own accord in 2014, feeling the need for a new challenge which would prove less than fulfilling at a troubled Bolton Wanderers. He was revitalised during a largely progressive spell in charge of Hibernian but admits he has always hankered after the unique intensity of managing a club of 
Celtic’s size.

“Oh yeah, I definitely missed it,” he added. “You miss the excitement. But four years was a long time. I was actually talking on a TV panel about Zinedine Zidane last season, after he won his third Champions League in charge of Real Madrid, and I said ‘I think he will leave’.

“Everyone else said ‘no chance’. But I got a feeling he might leave and take a break. Even the great people like him just need that time to take a step back, evolve, relax, recharge and go again. Now there he is, six or seven months later, he’s back in the job. Because you miss it.”

Lennon has won 18 major trophies as player and manager with Celtic, his status as one of the club’s most successful figures already assured. But he knows past glories will count for little as he seeks to ensure their current level of domestic dominance is maintained.

“Of course you are always proving yourself when you are Celtic manager,” he said. “When you are a competitor, when you are a professional athlete or a manager, you look in the mirror every day and say ‘Right, what can we do to be better?’. Or you go to bed at night and say ‘Did you do enough?’. That never really changes.

“You can’t rest on your laurels because there are always targets, always incentives, always something that you want to achieve. I have got a lot here that I want to do.”

In addition to a revamp of the first-team squad, a change in playing style from the model laid down by predecessor Rodgers is among the items on Lennon’s to-do list.

“The playing style is more possession-based now and it works,” he added. “But I would like us to have a little bit more impetus and purpose with our passing going forward.

“It’s important we sign players who can make a difference, not just fill the squad. I can’t give you numbers on players because, at the moment, we have some players here who may not be here or may want to go. So we are preparing for those eventualities as well.

“We will look right through the team, where we can improve and where we can freshen. They looked tired at the end of the season and that is understandable. They need a hand. It doesn’t need major surgery, but if we can get some quality in, freshen up and give them a lift then that is what we will endeavour to do.”