Wednesday 28 June 2017

Neil Lennon: Paradise pressure cooker

Celtic boss Lennon knows he must deliveror be gobbled up by the Old Firm monster

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

LAST SUNDAY Neil Lennon sat down and tuned into his old life for one last bit of normality before the madness of his professional life took off again.

The former Armagh minor watched his county's defeat to Derry and logged on to Twitter to give his take. The Glaswegians among his 42,963 followers must have scratched their heads with bemusement.

The following morning, the holidays were over and it was back to normal business and the life he chose 22 years ago when he turned his back on Gaelic football in pursuit of the glamour of professional soccer.

His players reported for duty and pre-season got underway with twice daily sessions and a schedule that will take his Celtic team to Australia next month ahead of the Scottish Premier League's early kick off, the Dublin Super Cup and the Europa League.

This morning Lennon woke up to his 40th birthday and as he enjoys his cornflakes, he is no doubt focusing on the second chapter of his sporting life.

As a player, the Lurgan man built his career from Crewe Alexandra to Celtic Park where he led the club as captain under his mentor Martin O'Neill.

Now, he is the main man in charge of a club whose relentless fans demand success at all times in an unforgiving football city. There is no time for learning like he did under Dario Gradi at the Alexandra Stadium; he has to deliver or be gobbled up by the Old Firm monster.

Lennon is looking ahead to his second full season and, after expressing his interest in the Ireland job, he appears to be a manager on a mission.

By learning his trade in the mad world of the Old Firm, where his profile attracts all the worst elements of that, at times, hate-filled rivalry, Lennon is doing management the hard way.

Lennon has gone on the record with the knowledge that he must deliver the league to Parkhead this season, so he isn't expecting a let-up in the pressure cooker.

"The off-the-field stuff, yeah, you want to put that behind you as quickly as possible," he admitted.

"I knew the nature of the job before I took it on, because I was affiliated with the club for the last 10 years. I know that if you go a couple of seasons without winning the SPL then you are putting yourself in a difficult position."

LIVING WITH

BIG BROTHER DOWNSTAIRS

Lennon followed O'Neill up to Glasgow in 2000, a time when he was coveted by a number of Premier League clubs.

The lure of playing for his boyhood club helped, but it was a time when the Old Firm could compete with English teams in terms of wages and European achievement and the quality was high.

Now that he is manager, things have changed.

"We can't compete with Premier League wages and transfer fees, so we have to be a bit more productive in where we scout our players from," he acknowledges.

"You try and sell the club as best you can. Celtic is a huge club, it's an institution and it's got a worldwide fanbase. When players do come here from England they don't want to leave here after a while."

KINDRED SPIRIT



Not one to forget his roots, Lennon always has one eye on home and, in particular, on his former minor teammate Kieran McGeeney.

They may have gone their separate ways since playing together as teenagers, but they are remarkably similar in terms of drive, determination and an ability to inspire loyalty in their players.

Both men are in make or break situations in their young management careers, with the pressure on McGeeney to deliver tomorrow at Croke Park. Lennon reckons he has what it takes.

"He's a very strong character, a fantastic footballer himself -- one of the best to ever come out of our county and no doubts he has the mental strength to be a coach," he said.

"He had tough start to life as Kildare boss, but he's done very, very well and he has got the players playing for him, which is important."

IRISH EYES

Darren O'Dea led the Irish defence brilliantly before the summer break, but admitted he may need to leave Celtic in order to achieve first team football. His club manager was impressed with what he saw, but admits the Dubliner's future remains far from guaranteed.

"I'll speak to Darren when he comes back, but I know he wants to play first team football. It's hard to guarantee that here with the competition we have for that position," he said.

"I'm delighted to see Darren play consistently for Ireland and I'd like to see the likes of Daryl Murphy and Anthony Stokes push towards that level as well."

THE DUBLIN SUPER CUP

Celtic's season will have already kicked off when they arrive in Dublin for their Aviva Stadium fixtures with Inter Milan and an Airtricity League XI.

The Glaswegians have struggled to navigate the European qualification waters in the past few years and that's why the Scottish FA moved the start of the season back.

And Lennon is hoping the fixtures will strengthen his hand for the Europa League.

"It will be good preparation for Europe -- there is no doubt about that," he said.

"We're delighted to be coming to Dublin to play in front of all of our Irish fans and we're delighted with the calibre of opposition as well, particularly Inter Milan which will be part of the players' development regarding where we want to be in three or four years time."

Lennon's Celtic team will be playing in the Dublin Super Cup, which takes place at the Aviva Stadium on 30 and 31.

Celtic will be joined at the tournament by Manchester City, Inter Milan and an Airtricity League XI.

Tickets start from just €30 and grant access to two games per day as well as a host of match day entertainment.

•To purchase tickets, please visit www.dublinsupercup.com or call Ticketmaster on 0818 719 391.

Irish Independent

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