‘We all get booed by our own fans’ says Celtic boss Neil Lennon

When you were once jeered by your own fans while helping their team reach a major European final, nothing should be surprising when it comes to the demanding nature of playing for Celtic.

Manager Neil Lennon told his players about the day he was booed by the Celtic fans. Picture: SNS.
Manager Neil Lennon told his players about the day he was booed by the Celtic fans. Picture: SNS.

But Neil Lennon admits even his past experiences at the club did not prepare him for the intense degree of scrutiny which now envelops the Scottish champions from the stands and terraces.

“It does take your breath away, more so than ever,” says the Celtic manager. Ahead of Thursday night’s 2-0 win over AIK in the first leg of the Europa League play-off, he related to his players the tale of his own uncomfortable experience in front of the Celtic Park faithful back in 2003.

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Lennon was subjected to a torrent of boos when, twice in quick succession, he opted to play safe by passing the ball backwards during the 1-1 draw against Boavista in the first leg of the Uefa Cup semi-final.

It was a reaction by the fans condemned as “in poor taste” by then manager Martin O’Neill. Lennon, who was ultimately vindicated as Celtic went on to win the second leg 1-0 and reach the final in Seville, now has to defend his own team as they try to respond to the often frenzied discontent expressed by some supporters in the wake of last week’s Champions League elimination at home to Cluj.

“I have noticed a discernible change in the expectation level since I came back to the club,” added Lennon. “Sometimes it can be unrealistic. We know that we were capable enough of getting through against Cluj. But now we have to make the most of the Europa League. That was a good start against AIK and hopefully we can finish it off in Sweden next week.

“I don’t know how you prepare new players at the club for it, especially when they come from a different country with a different tempo of play and a different climate. But the pressure and expectation here is hot.I have told them a few stories about my time as a player. It isn’t exclusive to this group, it has been like this for aeons. I brought up that game against Boavista when I was speaking to them before the game on Thursday.

“I wasn’t too chuffed about the reaction to that one but I dealt with it by getting angry. Someone else mentioned that even Henrik Larsson got it on his debut when he made a mistake. Everybody gets a touch of it now and again. You just have to accept it and deal with it. It happens. The fans don’t mean it. It is an instinctive reaction at times because they want the team to do well.”

Lennon expressed his satisfaction with the mentality of his players, including summer signings Christopher Jullien and Boli Bolingoli.

“The team showed a bit of character, which pleased me,” he added. “It was very disappointing against Cluj last week but we know we only had ourselves to blame. You could see the reaction that we got against AIK.

“For Christopher and Boli, that will hopefully give them confidence. Christopher was really good, really dominant. He dealt with anything in the air. He looked more sure-footed. Sometimes it works for you at Celtic, sometimes it doesn’t, but it doesn’t mean you are a poor player. It just means Celtic is a tough environment.”

Lennon’s focus now turns to tomorrow’s Premiership fixture at home to Hearts when he will face another manager – Craig Levein – who has faced early-season criticism.

“It’s just a sign of the times,” reflected Lennon. “Everyone wants results instantly. It doesn’t take away the fact Craig is a very good manager. He steadied the ship at Hearts and people shouldn’t forget that. They made the top six last year along with one semi-final and a final. They started last season brilliantly and, but for serious injuries to key players, who knows what kind of season they might have had.

“He has good players in his team with Conor Washington and Steven Naismith, while they are always strong defensively. So we are in for a 
tough test.”