Lennon feet on ground as Celtic target treble
NEIL LENNON goes into tomorrow's Scottish League Cup semi-final against St Mirren knowing that only two Celtic managers – the great Jock Stein and his own mentor Martin O'Neill – have ever completed a clean sweep of domestic honours.
Lennon is odds-on to do just that this season but he was in a similar position 12 months ago, only to lose to Kilmarnock in the final of the League Cup and to Hearts in the last four of the Scottish Cup.
This year, he suspects, will be different and the Armagh man is more determined than ever to make history following an inspirational chat with Alex Ferguson after last Tuesday's 4-0 victory over Dundee United at Parkhead.
The Manchester United manager had returned to his native Glasgow in order to pay tribute to former Celtic player and assistant manager Sean Fallon, who was buried on Wednesday, but he took the time to speak with Lennon and his staff.
"Sir Alex was complimentary and he actually enjoyed the game – he won money on us for a change!" said Lennon.
"He normally calls me up to say we cost him a few quid but I'm delighted to report that he won his bet. He took in the game as a guest of the club, came in to see us afterwards and was in great form.
"I have huge admiration for him. He's a great individual and the way he spoke at Sean Fallon's eulogy was very impressive as well.
"He came in and spoke to us for 30-40 minutes on football – but he didn't put any bids in."
Ferguson also discussed Celtic's prospects of progression in the Champions League.
"Yes we talked about Juventus (who are reportedly in advanced talks with Nicolas Anelka) but not in any great detail," said Lennon. "We asked about Paul Pogba, who is now at Juve and who he had at United. He gave us a few steers on that.
"I won't go into any more of what he said as that will lead you to write he's tipped us or he's tipped Juventus: he thinks it's pretty even.
"He didn't speak about Victor (Wanyama): he spoke about Gary (Hooper). He said he was well looked after in the centre-forward area, but he was very impressed with his performance."
Lennon completed the treble as a player in just five months after signing from Leicester City for £6m in December 2000.
In the 12 years since then that feat has been emulated only once, by Alex McLeish's Rangers side a decade ago. Lennon is well aware of the significance of such an achievement.
"We've come close a couple of times," he said. "When you are going well in all the competitions, the talks starts about the treble. But it's a very difficult thing to do and I know that from experience as a player and the last two seasons as a manager.
"I think we have been two games away from it and that is testament to our consistency and quality over a nine-month period."
Lennon was particularly disappointed not to have hoarded all three trophies in his sophomore season.
"We got to the League Cup final and, for some reason, everyone criticised the performance but we didn't do a lot wrong that day apart from not score. We had great chances, three or four of them clear-cut, and could have put the game well beyond Kilmarnock.
"And in the semi-final against Hearts, Ki (Sung-yueng) has hit the post twice and could have won it before they got the penalty decision."
Celtic have won their last eight meetings with St Mirren but Lennon insists that his squad will not suffer from complacency tomorrow.
"There is no over-confidence," he said.
"I am always wary of semi-finals, particularly at Hampden when it can be a bit of a surreal atmosphere at times with the crowd being so far away from the pitch and probably inclement weather conditions, which can make be a bit of a leveller as well.
"You just have to look at the semi- finals this week. Would you have envisaged Bradford and Swansea being in the final? That's the unpredictability of it.
"But the players are in good focus and have played really well in the last two games so I am hoping they can carry that on into Sunday." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Celtic v St Mirren, tomorrow,
Live, BBC Scotland, 2.30