He may have had a hard act to follow when he returned to Celtic Park but Neil Lennon has never been found wanting when it comes to setting his own high standards at the club he loves.
Since replacing serial silverware winner Brendan Rodgers, pictured below, in February last year, Lennon has maintained Celtic’s stranglehold on the three domestic competitions while adding further gloss to his own personal CV.
The confirmation of a record-equalling ninth consecutive league title for the Scottish champions in this pandemic-shortened season means only the titanic figures of Willie Maley and Jock Stein have won more major trophies as Celtic manager than Lennon, pictured right with the Premiership trophy.
His ninth piece of silverware over his two stints in charge takes Lennon one ahead of iconic European Cup-winning captain Billy McNeill and two clear of both his old mentor, Martin O’Neill, and the aforementioned Rodgers.
“To be in that pantheon of managers is fantastic,” said Lennon as he reflected on his fifth title win as manager, the same number he lifted as a player with the club.
“I’ve been given this gift of managing the club for the second time. It’s a privilege. I wouldn’t underestimate this season’s achievements. The pressure was immense taking over from Brendan.
“He won everything domestically, so it was important for me to stay focused. I’ve got a great backroom team. The work ethic and professionalism rubs off on the players. You inherit that and try to make it work.
“It’s been really satisfying because I’ve come in on my own and I’ve taken it on. These guys have worked with me and they’ve been absolutely amazing. But I want more. I’m 48 – still relatively young. I’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot to achieve. I’ve got a lot of incentives and targets. It’s a pressure job. At the minute, I’m really missing it. I’m missing the players and supporters. Most of all I’m missing the football and the day-to-day interaction.
“I don’t want to stop now. I want to look back on my career as I did as a player and say ‘that was pretty good’.”
Having overseen the start of the current nine-in-a-row feat with his first title win as manager in 2012, Lennon can savour completing the sequence he has shared with Rodgers and Ronny Deila.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking of nine-in-a-row when I won that first one,” he said. “However, when I came back the second time, obviously it was something that was in the back of my mind.
“When we clinched the eighth title at Aberdeen last year, a lot of supporters were pre-empting ‘going for ten’ – but you have to win nine first.
“This was a brilliant season up until it was cut off. We’d a really strong first half of the season which ended in a significant defeat [at home by Rangers] and a lot of questions being asked about myself, the backroom team and the players.
“But they came out and smashed it in the second half of the season. They showed absolutely outstanding consistency, the style of play, the volume of goals we scored as well – we were really playing brilliantly.
“We’d good depth. In terms of how strong we were looking at that first week in March, we were looking for 100 goals and 100 points from the season.
“There were outstanding contributions from a lot of the players along the way. We’d a great Europa League campaign as well, certainly in the group stage. I was disappointed to go out of that in the last 32 but it’s a good stepping stone for us for Europe next year as well.”
Celtic’s status as champions appeared most under threat when Rangers won 2-1 at Parkhead on 29 December, a result which moved Steven Gerrard’s side just two points behind with a game in hand going into the winter break.
“We looked tired that day,” reflected Lennon. “It was our ninth game of the month. We hadn’t played well against them in the League Cup final, although we won it, and we didn’t play great in that game at Celtic Park either.
“I was toying with the idea of changing to a back-three but we didn’t have enough time to work on it in between the games in December. So going away to Dubai gave us a bit of time to get a bit of freshness into us and reset. You have to remember the scrutiny and the pressure the players are under week in, week out and game in, game out. They were really galvanised after Dubai. We put together an unbelievable run.
“We only dropped two points out of 30 between coming back and 7 March. We were into the semi-final of the Scottish Cup as well. We were absolutely fantastic and all credit goes to the players for the way they responded. Sometimes there’s too much panic and hype around one performance. What we were looking for, which we couldn’t do, was play a game straight away. We had to sit on that defeat for a little while.
“But it gave us time to put things in place. We weren’t overly concerned but we were concerned enough to look at things we could have done better and ask if we could have played better. Certainly from the first game after the break, we were unstoppable domestically.”
Much was made of the manner in which Rangers celebrated that win at Celtic Park, although the reaction of Gerrard and his players was hardly any different to how Lennon and his squad had reacted at full-time after their win at Ibrox earlier in the season.
“That wasn’t really much of a motivation,” added Lennon. “You tend to blank out the nonsense that goes around it because it’s not real. It was only one win [for Rangers] or one defeat from our point of view.
“When we lost to Livingston earlier in the season, we bounced back with a great run of wins. I was quite confident we’d do the same again.
“I didn’t realise how well we would bounce back, though. But bounce back we did. It was a spectacular reaction to the point where we opened up a 13-point lead.
“People were asking me in October if I thought the league would go to goal difference. I said that I didn’t have a crystal ball but that I hoped it wouldn’t.
“By the time the league was curtailed, we were 13 clear with a 25 better goal difference. People take that for granted from this team but they are the ones who have got to go out and play under the pressure and scrutiny.
“A lot of people were hoping they’d trip up but they just refused to let that happen. Their mentality is unbelievable.”
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