Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Lennon must keep Celtic top of the class

So, the domestic Scottish football season came to an end on Sunday with Celtic winning the Scottish Cup to land them a double, which was widely expected prior to the final.

Over the course of the season, the Hoops have simply been far too good for the rest of the teams in Scotland.

Agreed, they have had their slip ups and disappointments along the way, but over the piece they have got the job done with plenty to spare.

Typically, when Neil Lennon was asked after Sunday's comfortable 3-0 victory over Hibs how he could top the season they've had, he duly replied 'we can win the treble next season!'

That's the kind of drive Lennon has – and needs – and the mentality he'll be demanding in the campaigns ahead.

At the start of the season, with Rangers out of the SPL, there was no doubt Celtic would conquer all before them, but there have been other more unexpected success stories in Scottish football.

St Mirren, under the guidance of ex-Northern Ireland international Danny Lennon, won their first major trophy since 1987, claiming the League Cup.

Motherwell finished best of the rest for a second successive season, making it European football at Fir Park for a sixth time in the last seven seasons, an impressive feat by anyone's standards. The Highland duo of Inverness and Ross County defied the odds and finished in the top six for the first time in their history. Both just fell short of qualifying for the Europa League, but what a journey Terry Butcher and Derek Adams have had with their respective clubs.

St Johnstone coming third wasn't anticipated back in August last year, so they had an exceptional season.

On the flip side of that, the continued struggles of the country's traditionally big clubs, Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts is worrying.

The financial concerns of Hearts show no sign of going away and after losing Rangers last season from the SPL, the league can ill afford to lose a club of their stature also.

Hibs and Aberdeen should have their sights set higher than finishing in the bottom half of the league and both are in for a transitional summer in terms of player recruitment.

They simply haven't been good enough over the past three or four years and if I'm being brutally honest our game needs a strong Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts.

They all have fine stadiums, potentially can attract very good crowds and when successful, take large travelling support away from home, which is always healthy for the rest of the league. Big improvement is needed and they well know it.

But it's Celtic who have grabbed all the major headlines in a season that was shrouded in uncertainty after the demise of Rangers last summer.

Neil Lennon became only the third manager in the history of Celtic to win a double as a player and a manager, and their Champions League run to the last 16 captivated the whole country.

Lennon's squad has raised the stakes in terms of European progress, but do they have the determination to repeat their heroics?

There's no doubt they will dominate domestically for the foreseeable future and I fully expect them to win the SPL title as a minimum next season.

Retaining key figures like Gary Hooper, who once again reaffirmed his class with a cup-winning brace on Sunday, will be what Lennon has to strive to do over the summer.

It's a shorter-than-normal end of season break due to Champions League qualifiers for the Celtic players, but the satisfaction of two winners' medals will ease that concern as they and everyone else return in July to do it all once more.

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