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Lennon looks to end on high

NEIL LENNON can finish his tumultuous first season as Celtic manager with a moment of triumph and hope.

His team play Motherwell this afternoon in the final of the Scottish Cup, and victory at Hampden Park would frame the season's story as the success of a young team and coach under unfamiliar pressures.

Looking forward, though, the crucial first trophy for Celtic's young squad would open the possibility of more rewarding seasons in the future.

At the end of the league campaign Lennon said that "this isn't the end, this is just the beginning". This reflects a sense that this Hoops team will improve and mature in the coming seasons better than Rangers.

Celtic, needing to regenerate, bought young and gifted players last summer. The embedding of the new generation produced some thrilling football.

Emilio Izaguirre, Gary Hooper, Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley, all born between 1986 and '88, have excelled.

But Celtic have not quite had the maturity required to win a trophy yet. They lost the CIS Cup final in extra-time to Rangers in March and, when the title was theirs to lose, they did just that by going down 3-2 at Inverness on May 4 to gift their rivals the league.

However, victory this afternoon may equip Celtic with the belief necessary to beat Rangers to the title next year.

This season has displayed the most toxic excesses of sectarianism in the Scottish game. Lennon has been the focus of a campaign of hate unprecedented in British sport.

In January, he was sent bullets in the post. In March, two bombs, one a hoax, the other not, were posted to him. Earlier this month he was attacked on the touchline at Tynecastle by a Hearts supporter.

Lennon is known for his combative nature, but his conduct in the face of both threatened and actual physical violence has been impressively calm.

Walter Smith said this week that similar threats would have driven him out of the Rangers job.

"It would have been the end for me," he said. "I would not have been in the job any longer."

Lennon is a marathon away from matching Smith's achievements in Scottish football, but victory today would reward faultless nerve under unimaginable circumstances.

It may also inspire his young Celtic team to greater successes in brighter times. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent