Wednesday 20 November 2019

James Lawton: Lennon miracle a morality tale for big-spending European flops

James Lawton

In the city where football hubris was once defined for all time – the Scottish team had a victory celebration at Hampden Park before flying out to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina – Neil Lennon yesterday contented himself with a little window shopping.

He merely speculated on which expensive football organisation might next feel the force of his brilliantly overachieving Celtic.

It might be nice, certainly, to walk among the orange trees of Malaga at this time of year. Manchester United would draw the lustre of a new 'Battle of Britain'. Bayern Munich, Juventus and the new wealth of Paris Saint-Germain would all represent the kind of fast-lane glamour so long separated from the bread-line rigours of the Scottish game.

Yet if few football men had ever earned more right to a daydream or two, it is maybe significant that Lennon did it with all his working instincts still very close to the frozen streets of Glasgow.


He maintained his belief that his team had achieved a kind of miracle, beating Barcelona, forcing an extremely talented Benfica team out of a group which when it was announced promised his team's near certain death, but it was no reason to run ahead of himself.

"Yes, when you consider what we were up against, it is a bit miraculous that we have made it to the last 16 and I'm very proud of my players," he said, "but no one needs to tell any of us what kind of challenge lies ahead.

"This has been a terrific test of our character and whatever happens now, we cannot let ourselves down. We can lose, there's nothing wrong with that, but not at the expense of anything we have gained these last few weeks. You set yourself a standard and you have to stick to it."

Those who have charted most closely Lennon's turbulent career in Glasgow report a certain maturing, an understanding that if some challenges can never be ducked, they don't all have to be negotiated at roughly the same time.

The death threats, starting with the one that persuaded him that it would be timely to cut short his international career with Northern Ireland, the intercepted parcel bombs, the bullets through the mail and the assaults have presented a challenge rare even in the more rancid corners of the city's tribal prejudice.

However, someone who has studied the hero of one half of Glasgow reports that his passage through an experience which would have tested the nerve of the most resilient character, has become increasingly sure-footed.

"He understands his situation better than ever before, he understands himself and the environment in which he has to operate.

"He knows better that if you have a forceful style, if you know who you are and what you want, the fact that you are also a Northern Ireland Catholic is bound to bring its own pressure.

"He has come through it very well, very impressively, and during this Champions League his focus has been brilliant. He has carried his players with him every step of the way."

Certainly the sight of a player of such modest background as Gary Hooper striking the first blow against Spartak Moscow this week – and reminding the football world of a strike rate that left him behind only such icons as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Antonio di Natale – was still another testament to the acumen of the young manager who has returned Celtic to the territory of their greatest glory.

Hooper came from Scunthorpe United, a club which last made an impact on the top flight when it sold Kevin Keegan to Liverpool.

The speed at which Lennon has built – in these days of Rangers' agony of displacement – on his success in the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Cup can also be seen as a major rebuke to some of the fallen mega-powers on the other side of the border.

Lennon's unity with his players was a most tangible force as it made a stunning contrast with the style of management at Manchester City and Chelsea.

City, the champions of England, and a Chelsea losing their grip on the European title gained so stunningly last spring failed to marshal hugely expensive squads in their disastrous campaigns.

Chelsea coach Rafa Benitez arrived at Stamford Bridge with what appeared to be a notebook of lectures for the players he inherited from the care of Roberto Di Matteo.

Before their unavailing 6-1 defeat of the feeble Danish champions Nordsjaelland, Benitez bemoaned his dressing-room's lack of courage, confidence and competitive character.

City's Roberto Mancini has worn on his face his displeasure with a team that for a second straight year failed miserably at the highest level of the game.

From Lennon has come something much closer to the operating method of Borussia Dortmund's outstanding coach Jurgen Klopp although the German, even in the careful financial structure of the Bundesliga, has vastly greater resources than his counterpart in Glasgow.


Klopp's Gary Hooper is Marco Reus, £15m worth of great touch and wonderful athleticism who at 23 has become one of the great hopes of one of Europe's most powerful nations.

But between the coach and the rising superstar there is the same kind of closeness exhibited by Lennon and his players. For the dismayed English game, there is something here that might just resemble a morality tale.

Certainly, it gave the triumph of Celtic a resonance that swept beyond the limits of a city which once produced its own 11 players to beat the power of Internazionale and their legendary coach Helenio Herrera in 1967.

Of course, that Celtic team were sent out by something of a legend of their own.

Neil Lennon may never walk in the footsteps of Jock Stein, not all the way, but already he can claim to have refreshed the remembrance of a great man and a remarkable team. It is a stunning feat of nerve and resolution, one that has already earned a place all of its own.

Irish Independent

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