‘Me, Brendan Rodgers and Claude Puel got together and worked it out’ - Neil Lennon laughs off ‘conspiracy’ claim over Celtic return
A year ago today, Neil Lennon was waking up to what seemed an entirely uncertain future. Suspended by Hibernian the evening before in a strange and confused episode wherein it was claimed he faced a player revolt, five days later his two-and-a-half years at Easter Road was officially ended with a statement from the club which said he had not been guilty of any wrongdoing, had not been sacked, indeed had not even resigned but was no longer the club’s manager.
Within four weeks that messy end became the best worst thing that ever happened to Lennon. He answered the call to fill the void at Celtic created by Brendan Rodgers, pictured, leaving for Leicester City and is firmly ensconced at the Scottish champions second time around, having claimed all three domestic honours contested in the past 12 months, and produced a best ever European group showing.
Yet, the souring of his time at Easter Road is still a source of regret. Having piloted Hibs to promotion, then led them to fourth in his two full campaigns, it was an unedifying end to a tenure Lennon relished, despite third-season struggles that had left them sitting eighth and without a win in five on his departure.
Many wondered what the next career turn of the Irishman would be, and whether the former Hibernian manager would be given an opportunity to operate at the level afforded to him by the Leith club. The fact that he’s returned to the top of the game in this country with his first-love of a football club certainly smoothes any niggles.
“Sometimes it feels like yesterday, other times it feels like ten years ago,” he said of the year anniversary since his break with Hibs. “It is still pretty fresh in the mind, that year has gone pretty quickly. I can’t believe that.
“You just never know in football. I had a decent time of it at Hibs, what with promotion and a really good second season. It ended not great but it never does, but I still was confident we would finish in the top six.
“I am here now and relishing the opportunity to be back here. It is a big job and I have got great players to work with and I am pretty grateful for that.
“And you move on. It is pointless being bitter about things [at Hibs] because that is football. Sometimes things don’t pan out the way you expect them to, which can be disappointing, but you don’t linger on it and I haven’t had time to linger on it.”
Some outlandish theories followed his parting with the Easter Road club, because it allowed him to be free and available to assume the Celtic reins from Rodgers in what seemed a matter of hours. Some miffed Hibs fans claimed he deliberately engineered an exit because he knew that Rodgers wasn’t long for the world of Scottish football.
“Oh yeah, me, Brendan and Claude Puel [sacked by Leicester] all got together to say ‘you leave there, and I’ll go in there’… As if that is going to work. A good conspiracy but unfortunately not true.”
When Lennon unexpectedly found himself a manager at rest, he said the period would allow him to recharge his batteries. Within weeks, he was plunged into a frenetic environment as he was installed as the interim manager that daren’t fail to guide Celtic to a treble treble.
His success in delivering that unprecedented feat allowed him to take charge permanently for a season in which the pursuit of a ninth-straight title has afforded him precious little downtime. Starting with last Saturday’s Scottish Cup win at Partick Thistle, with which Celtic returned after the break, they potentially face a humongous 19 games in little over nine weeks.
“You don’t really [get a chance to recharge here]. You just sort of take it day by day and then you look forward to the games when they come around. We have three away games [in the next week and a half] in St Johnstone, Hamilton and Motherwell. All difficult in their own ways, so they are coming thick and fast.”
It might not be easy to manage, but the alternative for Lennon would be entirely unpalatable.