Neil Lennon is one of a select band of managers who understand just what it is like to take charge of an Old Firm side.
While it will feel strange to walk out of the tunnel at Celtic Park tomorrow and turn right, as a visitor, an underdog and as the manager of the side that the vast majority of the 60,000 crowd want to see bettered, he will look to his left and be able to identify with the thoughts and emotions running through counterpart Brendan Rodgers’ mind. As one of the few managers in history who understand the pressure and demands piled on the men in charge of the Glasgow sides, Lennon knows the supporters demand nothing less than a victory week after week.
“Being the Celtic manager is like being part of an exclusive club,” he said as he looked back on his four years at the managerial helm ahead of his first trip back there as an opposing boss. “It is a bit like being the president of the United States. There have only been a few of us in the course of the club’s history – I’m number 18 – and it is a very special group to be among. I am very proud of that.”
Since he left, two others have occupied the Parkhead hotseat, with mixed returns. Ronnie Deila lasted less than two years, but Rodgers has swiftly secured a place in the club’s history, winning the treble in his first season and guiding the team to a 57-games- and-counting unbeaten run domestically.
The success of the former Liverpool boss has not surprised Lennon, who witnessed at first hand his quality. “Brendan was very good to me when I was coaching very early on in my career,” he said. “I was able to go down to Reading to see him. I wasn’t managing then as I was still coaching the Celtic development team and it was a great couple of days. I took an enormous amount of information from him.
“It wasn’t out of left field, he was just really thorough and there was real snap to the sessions and the way he put them out. The way he came across was top class. Since then he has taken his career on to great things and he is self-made. He has worked really hard and, knowing Brendan, he will want to try to improve all aspects of his managerial acumen. But I am delighted for him as he seems in a very good place at the minute.
“It was really interesting. He made you think about the game. He obviously learned a lot coming through at Chelsea but he is definitely his own man now. The way his teams play is a joy to watch. I like this Celtic team, I like it a lot.
“I sent a text after the win in Anderlecht. It’s his first Champions League win and only Celtic’s second ever away win.”
The last came when Lennon was in charge. “It is a brilliant feeling. To be fair it has been coming and there has been a marked improvement since last season,” he added.
“I thought they played the second half very well and there was a maturity. They showed patience and composure. As we all know it is not easy to win away in the Champions League but they made it look very comfortable and that is the sign of a very good team.”
The hope for Hibs is that Celtic flounder after the exertions of that crucial European trip but while Lennon will cross his fingers, he sees little evidence to suggest standards will be allowed to dip.
But he has been rallying players he believes can make life difficult for Rodgers’ side. “I want them to show their quality,” he said. “You’re playing the best and you want to test yourself. Don’t just enjoy it, make the most of it. Don’t have any regrets. Take the opportunity to try to come away with a good performance and a good result.”