HISTORY beckons for Neil Lennon at Hampden tomorrow. If his Celtic team lift the Scottish Cup, he will become only the third man ever to win the domestic double in Scotland as both a player and manager for the same club.
The prospect of joining truly iconic Celtic figures Jock Stein and Billy McNeill in that very select group is unquestionably a motivation for Lennon but it is also a subject he does not care to dwell upon ahead of the showdown with Hibs.
“You can ask me that question on Sunday if we win,” said Lennon. “I don’t want to tempt fate or be disrespectful to anyone.
“The players have a game to play and we are really well prepared, but Hibs have their own incentives for winning the cup. Huge incentives.”
While Celtic go into the match as overwhelming favourites, Lennon’s wariness ahead of any Hampden assignment is understandable. Since becoming Celtic manager, he has taken his team to the national stadium on 10 occasions and has lost half of those fixtures.
The five defeats – against Ross County (2010 Scottish Cup semi-final), Rangers (2011 League Cup final), Kilmarnock (2012 League Cup final), Hearts (2012 Scottish Cup semi-final) and St Mirren (2013 League Cup semi-final) –have seen Celtic lumbered with a reputation that they struggle to perform at Scottish football’s most prestigious venue.
It is a problem Lennon has taken time to try and address and one he feels was only partially solved in their dramatic 4-3 extra-time victory over Dundee United in the Scottish Cup semi-final last month.
“We had a look at what had been happening at Hampden before the United game,” added Lennon, “and we noticed we seemed to get a little bit stretched. We played well against United but we still conceded poor goals from our point of view.
“That can happen on the day. You’ve got to give other teams respect as well. The focus is often on how we perform rather than how other teams perform. It’s a one-off game between two very motivated teams and anything can happen.”
As keen as he is to add another silver lining to a memorable campaign for Celtic, Lennon does not subscribe to the view that they have to win the Scottish Cup for it to be regarded as a truly outstanding season. “No matter what happens on Sunday, I think it’s been a great season,” he said. “Our main focus was winning the league and our next priority was, could we progress in Europe. We did both.
“The team have done that fantastically well. We wanted to win the treble as well, we’d our eye on that, but we’ve made another cup final and I’m delighted about that. I just want us to finish off the season the way we’ve played for the majority of it.
“My players don’t owe me anything. Not a thing. They’ve already won the league, they’ve performed brilliantly in Europe and exceeded expectations.
“This game is a huge bonus coming into this stage of the season. There’s a trophy at the end of it for us and it is one we would dearly love to win.”
There is a general expectation that Celtic are certain to win tomorrow if they produce their optimum form. Again, however, Lennon is reluctant to embrace that school of thought.
“It would be a bit blase to say that,” he added. “You have to remember there are up to 14 other players on the day trying to stop you from playing. I know all the expectation is on us to win the game. We’ve had our faux pas here in the past but, looking at the players in the last few weeks, they seem very focused and very driven on winning this game.
“I watched Hibs last week and they are playing well. Everyone will talk about Leigh Griffiths and he has had a fantastic season and is a real threat. He’s got great movement and hits the ball well with both feet and is impressive at set-pieces.
“The young lad Alex Harris has come in and looked really bright. He’s a bit of an eliminator. They do pose a threat. They are scoring goals and have picked up recently. The young lad Ross Caldwell has come in and got the winner against Hearts, so they have plenty of attacking options – as do we.
“You are always hoping it is a great game but you are always hoping you win. Our last two performances in the league have been really powerful and there has been a real intensity to our play. And quality.
“I hope we bring that on Sunday, but we were playing very well going into the League Cup semi-final here against St Mirren and we didn’t perform anywhere near the capability we could have that day. That is something we should be mindful of.”
As he conducted his pre-match media duties at Hampden yesterday, Lennon was gratified by the magnificent condition of the often-criticised playing surface. “I’m delighted with the pitch,” he said. “When you see it in the sunshine it’s very impressive. Sometimes it can be a bit dry and it’s a slower pitch, but Sunday looks like it’s going to be a good day weather-wise. But there can be no complaints about the pitch looking at it today. It looks like it’s never been played on before so credit to the people at Hampden for that.”
Lennon will assess the fitness of defender Charlie Mulgrew and winger James Forrest this morning but is hopeful both will fully recover from hamstring injuries in time to be involved. But Welsh full-back Adam Matthews has been ruled out by a similar problem, joining the suspended midfield duo of Victor Wanyama and Beram Kayal on the sidelines.
While the return to action of captain Scott Brown has “softened the blow” for Lennon, he has sympathy for Wanyama and feels the regulations surrounding suspensions in cup football should be re-assessed.
“I’d like to see a change to the rule which can see you miss a cup final if you get two bookings in a competition,” said Lennon. “I think that is really harsh. I’m not just talking about the Scottish Cup, I’d like to see it changed in the Champions League and even the World Cup. It’s a travesty that you can play so many games in the Champions League, for example, and then a minor booking costs you a place in the final. Wanyama has had a fantastic season for us and it’s a sore one for the kid to miss out on a showpiece game like this.”
But Lennon is relieved that his own involvement tomorrow will not be restricted, having received only a suspended one-match touchline ban from an SFA Judicial Panel on Thursday after being found guilty of breaching the terms of his recent three-match suspension.
“I’m delighted with the outcome,” he said. “It will be a great feeling walking out there on Sunday. Part of me at the time thought I could get a rap on the knuckles but thankfully common sense has prevailed.
“It makes a huge difference to me. When you are up there in the stand it feels like your right arm’s cut off as you are powerless to do things.
You can’t get in at half-time to affect the players as well as you’d like to. I’ve done one League Cup Final from the stand a few years ago and that wasn’t much fun. I was nearly on the roof that day.”