Thursday 14 December 2017

I don't want to be out of the game for long – Neil Lennon

RTE World Cup pundit eyes swift return after recharging batteries

Neil Lennon
Neil Lennon
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

FOR Neil Lennon, the first week of June has delivered an unfamiliar feeling of relaxation bordering on liberation. That's the benefit of a proper holiday.

He went away last year alright, but he brought the stress of work with him.

A combination of the normal pressure that comes with being Celtic boss and the vagaries of UEFA's Champions League qualification system meant there was little time to mentally recharge the batteries.

With the road to the riches of the group stages starting in the second week of July, it is essential for the Hoops to return to training before the end of June.

The planning towards that date eats into the window for downtime, effectively meaning that one season just rolls into the next. Now that Lennon has stepped off the carousel, after reaching the conclusion that four years in the Parkhead hot seat was enough, he has rediscovered what a proper rest entails.

"The last two years, with the European start, I had no break whatsoever," said the 42-year-old on Thursday, speaking to the Irish Independent from Portugal.

"Even when you're on holiday, you're thinking about the squad coming back, the timing of it, getting the pre-season right. It takes its toll.

"I've had four really intense years in Glasgow on and off the field and I had a great time, a fantastic time. I just felt it was a good stage in my life to leave."

Celtic might have had an idea that it was coming, but the process of replacing him has proved less than straightforward, with Ronny Deila, who was lined up as an assistant for Lennon when Johan Mjallby left, unveiled as the new manager yesterday.

The Armagh man is fully aware of the reputation that the Norwegian has forged at Stromsgodset, having done some business with the club to bring in midfielder Stefan Johansen.

"Ronny (came) highly recommended," he stressed. It could have been Roy Keane, of course, and Lennon has spoken of his surprise that Keane turned the opportunity down. He is disappointed, because he viewed the Corkman as the kind of character that the club needed to energise itself again for the impending decision.

Still, he respects Keane's decision and could understand if the immediate onset of the crucial Euro qualifiers were any factor in the verdict. Deila will have to hit the ground running, or else he'll be on the back foot already.

"That does play on your mind," Lennon conceded. "If Celtic don't go into the Champions League group stages, it's a long season. That's just the way things have worked out with the co-efficient, they have to play these hugely important games at an early stage of the season. I've had to negotiate that myself and it's very, very difficult.

"For the players, it's very tiring, mentally and physically. And the danger then is that it catches up with them in the early part of the season."

Financial restrictions are another element of the job facing Deila. Lennon steered the Scottish champions to the last 16 of the Champions League the season before last and then lost Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson.

The likelihood is that the incoming boss will have to cope with circling vultures. "That's the economic environment they're in," Lennon said.

"There's a lot of work to do. We lost Joe Ledley in January and now Georgios Samaras' contract has run out. There's some great players there, like Fraser Forster and Virgil van Dijk, and the club needs to hold onto them."

That's somebody else's problem now. Lennon is enjoying the absence of that stress, but he knows it's only a matter of time before he is itching to get back into the action.

"I don't want to be out of the game too long," he asserts, "and beggars can't be choosers. It's not about looking or waiting for a particular club.

"I had seven years as a player at Celtic and six as a coach and manager, and it's been a huge part of my life, but I'd given it plenty of time to think about it (leaving) and now I'm looking forward to the new challenges.

"I might have to be patient in the meantime, just watch some games, take my time, and see how other clubs work. I've done that before, I went to see Lille in France, I went to see Brendan Rodgers at work, so I might do more of that."

The next port of call is Rio for a 10-day stint on BBC duty, before coming back to Ireland for a week in studio with RTE. He's enthused by the prospect, having gained an appreciation of how the absolute highest level operates from plotting a course through Europe with a Celtic side which had to be tactically sharp to succeed.

"It'll be great to chew the fat over the games and just talk with the other guys about it," he said.

"When you play the likes of Barcelona and Juventus, you have to go into every detail, focus on every nuance, every set-piece, the big moments in games when you're trying to stop players like Xavi and Iniesta.

"In Brazil, I'll be watching the games from the perspective of the coach, watching how they line their teams and how they try to do it, and I'll understand that from my own experience." He knows what fantastic personnel Spain have at their disposal, but his gut feeling is that they might find it hard to hit the high notes again.

"They are the dominant country in world football, with real strength in depth, but it could be the last hurrah for some of their players. Then again, people said that in Euro 2012."

Brazil, with home advantage, appeal as likely winners.

Meanwhile, he thinks England might cause a surprise as, in contrast to other years, they don't necessarily arrive with unrealistic expectation.

"That might work in their favour," he suggested. "It's a tough group, but I think they'll do well, they could get through a couple of rounds. I enjoyed watching them against Ecuador the other night, they've got exciting players – Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain. Maybe it might be a World Cup too early for some of them, but I think they could do okay."

Before the greatest show on earth gets under way, Lennon will be listening out for news from closer to home this weekend. As a former Armagh minor, he'll be interested in how their Ulster championship showdown with Cavan pans out.


He spoke with his old team-mate Kieran McGeeney last week and is fascinated by what he may bring to the back-room team.

"He'd a decent spell with Kildare, but he'd think he should have done better," said the keen GAA fan, who helped bring Jim McGuinness to Celtic. "We've been in the shadow of Donegal and Tyrone and I'm hoping things will go a little better this year."

If they get a run going, Lennon will have the freedom to be there for the big days, another perk of temporary unemployment.

The novelty value is healthy, but the burning desire that lies within should ensure he's not confined to a spectating role for too long.

* Neil Lennon has been confirmed as part of RTE's punditry team for the World Cup in Brazil.

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