Neil Lennon relieved as Celtic take 'a small step' to redemption

NEIL Lennon last night expressed his relief at securing a hard-earned victory over Motherwell to begin the rehabilitation process demanded of Celtic after their shocking weekend elimination from the Scottish Cup.

• Josh Thompson celebrates after scoring his second goal of the night

The interim manager maintained his 100 per cent record in the SPL since replacing Tony Mowbray three weeks ago as Celtic recovered from going a goal down to claim a 2-1 victory which moved them eight points clear of Dundee United in the race for second place in the table and Champions League participation next season.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Following Saturday's humiliating 2-0 loss to First Division Ross County in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, that is the minimum requirement of Lennon if he is to retain any genuine prospect of becoming Celtic's new manager on a permanent basis.

"It is a small step in the right direction, that's all," he said. "There are a lot of things wrong and some things right. I'm not getting excited, we still have a lot to do. But that is three league wins in a row for us which is something to build on.

• Celtic 2 - 1 Motherwell: Lennon's men struggle again at half-empty Parkhead, but Josh Thompson's goals seal victory

"It was an important win in the context of trying to finish second in the table and in terms of trying to get some pride back. But it is a small, small step. It was a good reaction from the team, we got the win which was important for us. We have to finish second in the league and we have to beat Rangers when we play them next month. Then we will salvage a little something from the season."

Last night's win was achieved in front of rows of empty seats. Celtic issued an official attendance figure of 27,750, but many seasoned observers in the stadium estimated the actual number at around 15,000. "I completely understand the fans who stayed away," added Lennon. "I was grateful for those people who did turn up and to those who sang throughout the game and through the difficult periods of the game. I hope a few of the fans will come back and support the team against Hibs here on Saturday."

Lennon dropped Andreas Hinkel, Georgios Samaras and Marc-Antoine Fortune from the side who lost to Ross County and was satisfied with the outcome. "I had to pick a team to win tonight," he said. "Saturday was a message, just like many of the performances this season have been. I don't blame the board for that. I blamed the players for Saturday's performance. They had to take the responsibility and I was culpable as well.

"I'm delighted for the players who played at Hampden on Saturday and also for those who came into the side tonight. That's the way to respond.

"We could quite easily have gone under after conceding the first goal. I was nervous when we went 1-0 down, but the players reacted in the right way to equalise quickly. It was nervous and tense but I was just delighted to get over the line in the end. It was a good night on the back of a really tough couple of days."

Lennon was especially pleased for teenage defender Josh Thompson. Among those most harshly criticised on Saturday, Thompson bounced back well to score both of Celtic's goals after Mark Reynolds had put Motherwell in front.

"I was thinking about leaving Josh out and probably would have done if we had more defenders fit," said Lennon. "But I spoke to him last night and decided he would play. He still has a lot to learn, having been thrown in at the deep end this season, but he held his own tonight and I'm thrilled for him. I was more annoyed with the senior players than I was with him on Saturday."

Motherwell manager Craig Brown saw his team slip to a third successive defeat, denting their hopes of Europa League qualification, but he was still able to offer kind words for Lennon.

"While I am disappointed we didn't get something from the game, I'm pleased for Neil," said Brown. "He has had a hard time since Saturday but he certainly got a response from his team. You could see the influence of whatever Neil has done since Saturday.

"We just didn't hold our lead long enough tonight and to lose two goals from corner kicks in the manner we did was criminal."