NEIL Lennon saw his Celtic team crowned Scottish champions for the third successive year yesterday and hailed it as his sweetest triumph yet.
Celtic received the Premiership trophy after a 3-1 home win over Dundee United which took their final goals tally for the campaign to 102. They suffered just one league defeat all season as Lennon joined Willie Maley, Jock Stein and Gordon Strachan as the only managers to guide Celtic to three titles in a row.
“It feels better, because it’s the third one,” said Lennon. “I’m really proud of the team, proud that they finished off the season with a win which takes them over 100 goals in the league.
“It is very special to win any kind of trophy. For a long time in the 80s and 90s, it was a struggle for the club. Now we are very productive in terms of picking up trophies and being successful on and off the field.
“So I’m very proud to have joined the select band of Celtic managers to win three in a row. It is a privilege to do this job and when you are here, you want to make it work. It has been pretty incredible what we have achieved over the past four years.”
As satisfying as the season has been for Lennon, it has also been one of endurance as it began last July with the first of three qualifying rounds in the Champions League.
He admits to feeling some anxiety over what the summer months will bring in terms of interest from other clubs in his key players, but he is keen to re-energise himself ahead of next season. “That’s obviously the main worry or concern,” added Lennon. “We will see. There might be a bit of to-ing and fro-ing this summer if we get offers for some of our players.
“I’d imagine I’ll be talking to [chief executive] Peter Lawwell this week about things to initially get things up and running, then I’ll have a holiday of some sort. It will be welcome.
“What I want now is a break. I’m tired, it’s been a really long season. A marathon season, really. So it will be nice to take a break, reflect and take stock of things, and get ready for when we are back towards the end of June.”
Lennon picked out a handful of his players for special praise for their contributions over the course of the campaign.
“Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes can reflect on a remarkably productive season,” said Lennon. “Virgil van Dijk, Fraser Forster and Scott Brown have also been excellent. We have some good players here at the club and certainly the second half of the season has seen real progress and improvement. It gives us a lot of encouragement to build on for next season.
“The consistency has been fantastic, getting over 100 goals and winning the league by such a big margin. Now we look to the Champions League qualifiers and making sure we are at the big table next season.”
Lennon identified Forster’s England call-up as one of his highlights of the season and he is hopeful that his goalkeeper will be named in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad today.
“I’d like to think he will be in the squad,” added Lennon. “He deserves it for his performances over the past three seasons. Playing in Scotland can be detrimental. That’s not being disrespectful to the Scottish league. It’s in the eyes of other people, I hasten to add, not my own. It’s a remarkable achievement for him to play for England while playing in Scottish football.”
Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara pronounced himself content with his team’s level of performance at Celtic Park on a day when he left several of his key players out of his starting line-up, with next Saturday’s Scottish Cup final against St Johnstone in mind.
“I explained to the players beforehand why we were not taking risks with some of them,” said McNamara. “I’m not too disappointed because I felt we passed the ball well. The goals we lost were sloppy but we played well at times. Our focus is on next week but I still felt it was a professional performance.”
United finished fourth in the Premiership, a massive 41 points behind Celtic. The champions finished 29 points clear of runners-up Motherwell, and McNamara admits that the rest of Scottish football is nowhere near to providing a credible challenge to Celtic.
“Myself, like the other teams, that’s what you’re aiming for,” he said. “But it’s a big ask. We’ve said it for years and years about Rangers and Celtic, consistency and their winning mentality. They have a mental strength. It’s something we’ll try and work on but at this moment we’re miles off it.”