Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Stephen Craigan: Neil Lennon the Marmite man eating at top table now

Neil Lennon is like Marmite, you either love him or hate him but few can argue with his achievement of guiding Celtic to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in four years.

The Scottish game has been through the mill over the past few months so Neil and his players not only carried the hopes and expectations of the Celtic fans around the world but the whole of Scottish football.

The demise of Rangers had left the game in Scotland teetering on the brink of financial meltdown but with a new TV deal agreed and now Celtic back in Europe's elite competition tonight there's a real positivity back amongst fans and players alike.

It certainly hasn't been plain sailing for Neil since he took caretaker charge of Celtic in March 2010 — far from it.

A shock Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to first division Ross County within a month put him on the backfoot early on and many doubted his managerial capabilities.

Upon landing the job permanently later on that summer it’s fair to say Celtic are in a better place now, and in true Neil Lennon fashion he's fought and battled for everything he's achieved.

The last two years though have brought disappointments like losing the SPL title by a single point to rivals Rangers in 2011, a Scottish Cup semi-final defeat last season to Hearts and also falling at the final hurdle in the Scottish League Cup last season to a Kilmarnock side inspired by Kenny Shiels.

Results like this exposed Neil and his players to the theory that when the big games came around they struggled to make any impact. That's why progression this season in the Champions League to get back with the heavyweights of European football was crucial for Neil and his development as a young manager.

Since I first played against Neil for Motherwell and later when we completed our Uefa ‘B’ coaching badge together it was clear he had a single mindedness to succeed and nothing was going to distract him or get in his way.

He always demanded more from his team-mates when playing and when you see him managing he's exactly the same, jumping around the dug out like a frustrated ex-player.

After progressing to the Champions League group Neil claimed it was the best moment of his career and he spoke about the pressure he'd felt in the build to the games.

The final whistle brought a mixture of relief, satisfaction and plaudits but Neil knows more than most the hard work starts now and the fickle world of football is just around the corner.

It obvious to me that Neil is maturing as a manager and that's down to experience and spending time in the Celtic hotseat. When you’re a player you only have to think about yourself and look after your own game but as a manager you have a squad of players to look after. At Celtic Neil also has demanding supporters to please and of course the goldfish bowl that is Glasgow to comprehend.

The pressure of being a footballer or manager is one that motivates people or ruins them and it's clear to see that Neil uses it to spur him on.

His player recruitment has been very impressive.

The aim of Neil and Celtic has been to bring in young players with potential and develop them while adding to their market value along the way. He’s been very shrewd and you only need to look at Gary Hooper, Beram Kayal and Victor Wanyama to see the policy has been a success.

Neil has been telling us all that he has a young group of talented players and that they have been progressing over the past 18 months but the big test was always going to come in this season’s Champions League qualification and they have passed it with flying colours.

With Celtic being grouped with Benfica, Spartak Moscow and the irrepressible Barcelona the challenges that lie ahead for Neil and his players are daunting but exciting. What the players can't do is stand in awe of their opponents, they have to do what their manager has done his full career, have a resilience to stand up to any challenge that's come his way and show no fear in his fight for success.

Just ask Lenny, it's worth it!

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