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Vincent Hogan: Lennon finding new maturity in absence of Old Firm poison

There is something mad and beautiful about Celtic, still looking good to progress in the Champions League when two of England's more preposterous big spenders slide down the rubbish chute.

It has the air of a gentle throwback to a time when trophies weren't accessible in bulk-buy and players didn't seem the equivalent of expensive trinkets that billionaires took delivery of in bubble wrap. Celtic doing well in Europe has a strangely redemptive feel.

Better still, Neil Lennon's emergence as a properly authoritative managerial presence is a virtual Pauline conversion from the unhinged, bug-eyed character seen to square up to Ally McCoist on the Celtic Park touchline in March of last year.

Terrible wrongs have been perpetrated against Lennon, including death threats, a bomb sent in the post and that shocking assault by a so-called Hearts supporter last May 12 months. Yet, you couldn't but wonder at times if he recognised any duty of care in the realm of his own public behaviour.

That spat with McCoist, the wild lash at water bottles during a loss to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the seemingly endless railing against refereeing decisions (he faced four SFA charges in as many weeks last April) all spoke of a man for whom personal responsibility somehow represented an alien concept.

But Lennon suddenly seems to recognise that a football life littered with the debris of splintered commandments is one condemned, ultimately, for marginality in the outside world.

Rangers' absence from his professional life has, undoubtedly, changed him. The initial expectation had been that their neighbours' humiliation might somehow defrock Celtic. That, without the routinely toxic energy of Old Firm hatreds to sustain it, Scottish football would never be less relevant.

And it's still true to a point, given that unless Pat Fenlon's Hibs defy the odds and manage to become the first non-Glasgow champions since the SPL's inception, any story of the 2012/13 Scottish season will carry all the tumult of pinning rosettes on prize heifers at a village gymkhana.

Even watching Celtic's celebrations last May had a slightly bogus feel, given their neighbours' mid-season deduction of 10 points and subsequent demotion to the Third Division.

But here's the curious thing. With the flaring bigotry of the Old Firm relationship temporarily suspended, Celtic actually seem to be enjoying a more mature existence.

And Lennon looks suddenly credible in management. That so much disappointment could be articulated after this week's 2-1 defeat to Benfica was quite a statement of the journey travelled by Celtic in a domain that, again, proved un-navigable for Sheikh Mansour's thoroughbred stable and triggered yet another managerial sacking in the west London asylum bankrolled by Roman Abramovich.

Compared to those houses of fashion, Celtic lead a TetraPak existence in the rough and stubbornly sectarian streets of East Glasgow.

Yet, even before that remarkable recent defeat of Barcelona, their supporters had taken Europe's attention with the colour and tumult of their 125th anniversary pre-match celebrations. You didn't have to be of a hooped persuasion to tingle at the images broadcast from Parkhead on the night of November 7.

And, equally, you don't have to be a regular pilgrim to Celtic Park to nurture the hope that Celtic can now close the deal with their final group game against Spartak Moscow on Wednesday week.

Because Scottish football, however temporarily, has ceased being some kind of twisted holy war and re-acquainted itself with the ambition that brought both Celtic and Rangers to the very epicentre of European competition in the 1960s.

Lennon's Celtic have looked grown-up and well-organised in some of the game's biggest houses and the manager himself has decommissioned the random irritation of a street-brawler with a toothache.

In other words, hurting Rangers no longer represents the Alpha and Omega of life in 'Paradise'. Wouldn't it be some quantum leap if it never did again?

Irish Independent