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Lennon sees green shoots of a new era

If there is to be a changing of the guard in Scottish football this season, then Celtic fans will surely mark February 20, 2011 as one of their green letter days.

The emphatic manner of the 3-0 victory over Rangers in last week's league derby at Parkhead triggered a tumultuous atmosphere among the home support for the closing 20 minutes of the match -- a spectacle with few equivalents in club football.

The volume and passion from the stands last Sunday made an impact on players who have never experienced such euphoria according to Neil Lennon, who believes the occasion showed Celtic's newcomers what adulation could be theirs if they advance to a championship triumph or even a clean sweep of the three Scottish honours.

"That was probably the most important thing to come out of the day. There was a real connection with the supporters for the first time in a long time," said the Hoops manager, ahead of tomorrow's encounter with Motherwell at Fir Park.

"The players saw it for what it is, and for what it can be. It was an eye-opener for them but in a good way. At its best, the atmosphere at Celtic Park is unsurpassable. You can't generate that atmosphere at many other grounds -- Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, maybe Anfield -- but last Sunday was special.

"That was the thunder I was talking about last summer, getting the place bouncing again. That's what we've been striving to achieve. It's important as the supporters do play an important part in carrying the team on.

"When you get momentum like we have, all you want is to keep playing football. You just want to get back out there and enjoy the moment. We have to keep the players grounded and focused. Motherwell will be a different proposition from an Old Firm game, but it's vital that we win this game.

"Did I stand back and savour the atmosphere last week? Not really.

"There's that surreal atmosphere around the place when the game's going on and even after 75, 80 minutes, I was thinking that if Rangers get one back then they could peg us back.

"So, you never really enjoy it until it's over. The last time I experienced anything like that was the Valencia game in the Uefa Cup in 2001 when we came out for extra-time and the fans just kept on singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' while the game was going on.

"But at the end on Sunday there were no massive celebrations. If we win nothing, then all of this counts for nothing. There's been improvement but that alone won't be enough.


"The supporters have been starved of a wee bit of joy and entertainment for a while. While I'm pleased they're enjoying the football at the minute, we still have a long, long way to go before anything's achieved. I wouldn't say beating Rangers last weekend was pivotal. I had said before that it wouldn't define the championship...we can't get carried away."

Lennon needs no education in the volatility of fortunes in the Old Firm rivalry, but should he need to remind his players, he just has to tell them what happened at tomorrow's venue on the closing day of the 2004-05 season, when Celtic needed to win their final game to take the title and were 1-0 ahead of Motherwell in the final few minutes.

However, in an unforgettable finale, Scott McDonald -- a Celtic fan who later became a Parkhead player -- scored twice in the last three minutes to divert the championship to Ibrox. "That was a sore one -- the one that got away," said Lennon.

"But that's five years ago now and it doesn't always spring to mind. I was at Motherwell on Wednesday night and it doesn't always pop up, but every now and again it does, especially at this time of the season when you're heading into the run-in. It will be intense at Fir Park on a tight pitch. People go on about the state of the pitch and although it isn't great, it's still playable. I've seen it worse. It's a good arena to play in and it will be a good atmosphere. That will keep the players on their toes. There's still scope to improve. We've signed Kelvin Wilson on a pre-contract and he'll come in the summer and he'll improve us.

"We've also signed Adam Matthews, a good young player at Cardiff who we've liked for a while. He's only 18, but we've done good business there."

Stuart McCall has no such leeway to reinforce his Motherwell side and the chance of his players taking anything from this game seems to depend on Celtic still basking in the warmth of their Old Firm triumph. "No-one will be expecting anything from us and that's hopefully when we will be at our most dangerous," said McCall. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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Irish Independent