Wednesday 22 November 2017

Lennon’s super Hoops built in his own image

Martin Hardy

The chants of delirious supporters were sporadically floating through the air around Celtic Park when a man in his late 40s walked towards the statue of Jimmy Johnstone that is erected outside the main entrance to the stadium and very tenderly tapped the left foot that is set in bronze with his right hand.

There was a gentle nod, a moment for himself and with that he walked off into the night. He was paying tribute to history on a night that felt historic.

Barcelona were beaten on an evening that magically lifted you above and beyond football's recent ills some 125 years and one day after the club had initially been formed, back in 1887.

"One of the greatest night's in the club's history," came the immediate proclamation from the manager Neil Lennon and there were few dissenting voices. His initial comparison, as the dust still struggled to settle on an unforgettable 2-1 victory, was directed at the substitutes' bench.

In search of victory, Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach, had turned to David Villa, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. Lennon brought on Tony Watt, a £50,000 signing from Airdrie United. He had four teenagers on his bench.

Insurmountable odds were overcome, and that, as it always will, drew comparison with the Lisbon Lions of 1967, the first British team to lift the European Cup, with a group of players that was born, with one exception, within 10 miles of Celtic Park.

Celtic's team on Wednesday night could have been forgiven for looking to their side as they walked down the tunnel with fear.

Lionel Messi will earn more in three months than the entire Celtic team cost to put together, but from there the window to the past opens.

Before the European Cup final against Inter in '67, legend has it that Johnstone and Bertie Auld began singing "For it's a grand old team to play for" when the teams stood next to each other as they prepared to walk on to the field.

"There they were," Johnstone is quoted as saying. "Facchetti, Domenghini, Mazzola, Cappellini; all six-footers wi' Ambre Solaire suntans, Colgate smiles and sleek-backed hair. Each and every wan o' them looked like yon film star Cesar Romero. They even smelt beautiful.


"And there's us lot, midgets. Ah've got nae teeth, Bobby Lennox hasnae any, and old Ronnie Simpson's got the full monty, nae teeth top an' bottom. The Italians are staring doon at us an' we're grinnin' back up at 'em wi' our great gumsy grins. We must have looked like something out o' the circus."

It would have felt like a circus for Lennon back in 2010, when, in his third game as caretaker manager, Celtic were beaten 2-0 by Ross County in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup.

There is a recurring theme to Lennon's own recent story and it revolves around mental toughness.

A brief snapshot of his life will tell you why it is a trait he demands, from himself and from those around him.

An assault he suffered in 2008 for which his attackers were jailed; bullets in the post; parcel bombs and police protection. They are not customary, day-to-day management issues.

"No one in Scottish footballing histo

ry has had to contend with this level of pressure while trying to do their job," said Peter Lawwell, the chief executive at Celtic. "Neil has shown tremendous strength of character and resilience."

The team he inherited was said to lack the mental fortitude. He addressed personnel and, with the eye of football development manager, John Park, restructured his dressing room.

Victor Wanyama cost just £900,000 last summer. He has the No 67 shirt to honour the Lisbon Lions. His goal and commanding display on Wednesday have rocketed his value. Lennon put it at (a prohibitive) £25m, but the Kenyan, just 21, is contracted until 2015.

Goalkeeper Fraser Forster moved to Parkhead from Newcastle for just over £2m. Gary Hooper, who did not play against Barcelona because of injury, was set for his first England call-up, two years after leaving Scunthorpe. Joe Ledley was signed for nothing from Cardiff.

They built a squad to win last year's Scottish Premier League, but Lennon wants more.

On the evening of the second day of the Ryder Cup, when Martin Kaymer had not played a hole, Lennon texted the German's caddie, his friend Craig Connelly, to lift the player's spirits.

Kaymer, as Lennon had jokingly predicted, bounced back on the final day to sink the winning putt to seal a momentous comeback.

"It's one of those seminal moments in sport that just inspires you," Lennon said. "It just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it and pull together."

They are words that could have come from Wednesday night. Or from 1967.

(© Independent News Service)

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