Neil Lennon on Celtic’s Champions League journey

Neil Lennon. Picture: Robert Perry
Neil Lennon. Picture: Robert Perry
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FOR months, guiding Celtic to the Champions League group stages has occupied Neil Lennon’s every waking consideration.

“The only thing you think about is qualifying.

And the only other thing you think about is not qualifying. You sit in the house, you’re there, but you’re not there with family and friends. You drift off.” And drift into strange imaginings.

There were times in the early part of last week, before Celtic’s defibrillator-style resuscitation of their Champions League campaign with the 3-0 success over Shakhter Karagandy on Wednesday night, that Lennon seemed to think he might require false beard and glasses to attend a coaches’ convention in Geneva next week. “At the back of my mind was going there not as a a Champions League manager. The gravitas that gives you. Little things like that, they all add up. Walking into the room and thinking you belong. Not as the guy who lost to the Kazakhstanis – ‘What are you doing here?’”

Lennon didn’t have sleepless nights about the prospects of damage his own reputation. “I sleep OK, to be honest because the rest of the time you’re just thinking, thinking, thinking. People close to me say I’m very hard on myself. That I tend to be overly-driven sometimes and expect too much of myself sometimes, but that’s just the way I’m built. I don’t know any other way. I kind of think, think, think, think, put out about 25 teams, different formations, all that sort of stuff. Even when it comes to the day of the game, you’re thinking: ‘Should I change it? Have I done the right thing here?’”

In the immediate aftermath of winning the pivotal battle of his season, Lennon seemed at war with the world. He had swipes at the media, his own supporters, his own board, the Scottish psyche and modern life in general. No more than that, really. The scene in the pressroom as relief and anger engulfed him was of a man releasing weeks of pent-up tension as if his words were fists and the air around him a punchbag.

“I don’t mind criticism of the team or me personally if it is constructive but sometimes it is venomous. And you think that is not an environment which is conducive to thriving, it really isn’t. I do have respect for the majority of journalists in this country but I was basically looking at forums, and hotlines and phone-ins and all we want to do is talk down things and it really sucks the life out of you at times. I don’t automatically read the forums but people tell me. I get up in the morning and people say ‘did you hear what so and so said on the phone-in last night’ or ‘by the way did you read about this and that’. There is a wave of it sometimes and it seems to be relentless. Sometimes all they want to do is criticise and... basically... humiliate.”

Yet, the fact is it would have been humiliating to lose to Shahkter Karagandy. Lennon rightly takes pride in the fact that he has won five straight Champions League qualifiers in the past two years, when, in little under a decade previously, Celtic had come up short on the field in five European qualifying ties out of a possible ten. However, UEFA’s champions route and the seeding system is designed to allow a team like Celtic, with a £30 million wage bill, to progress to the group stages. They cannot be drawn against a team in any way approaching their standing. Lennon said in his post-match press conference that he had not had “help” from Celtic’s powerbrokers, his gripe being that £20m had been raked in from the sales of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson without direct replacements being acquired. Yet, if you want to play devil’s advocate, those three players shouldn’t have been required to overcome the 245th-ranked team in Europe. The Celtic manager admits that his relationship with chief executive Peter Lawwell is put under stress during this delicate stage of the season.

“I think it puts my relationship with everybody under stress. Not in personal terms but workwise it becomes stressful. The board never demanded anything. They never said to me you have to make the Champions League, but I think probably the cushion for that was that we sold three players for £20m. Now two of those we probably felt were leaving anyway, but we didn’t envisage Kelvin going and that was a bit of a blow. But it is more testament to the core of players we still have. When you lose your mainstay centre half, a key midfielder and your top goalscorer for three seasons, no matter who you are, whether you are Barcelona, Liverpool, or frigging Scunthorpe, it really bites you. I wanted players in, if we were selling players, and we couldn’t do it. We have now got Teemu Pukki, but Schalke were stockpiling strikers and saying ‘he is not for sale, he is not for sale’. Now we are in the Champions League, the player may have knocked down a few doors and he is gone.”

It was notable that, when it came to Wednesday’s decider, Lennon opted for those he could rely on in previous seasons ahead of his four summer signings till that point, a group which has also been bolstered by Israeli midfielder Nir Briton. Fitness issues played a part in Derk Boerrigter only featuring from the bench. Lennon considers him the only new arrival that could be considered to have the established pedigree he appears rarely able to capture, despite having put the club on a sound financial footing in his three and a half years in charge.

“It’s going to take time [with the new players]. We knew that. Amido Balde’s going to take time. I think Virgil van Dijk, once he’s played ten games or so, will get it, will get the pace of the game, and certainly at SPL level, will be an excellent acquisition. Steven Mouyokolo was brought in basically as a squad player and he’s done really well so far, so I’m pleased with him. And Derk I think is ready made but it’s just that he’s been injured. We’ll see the best of him when he’s fit. So those four we’ve brought in, we’re pleased with.”

There is no potential, though, for Lennon getting up to high doh over the Champions League qualifying campaign that will inevitably come round for his club next summer, he offers tongue-in-cheek. “I’m not going through it again, someone else can. I’ll be on holiday.”