Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Neil Lennon reveals how Celtic beat Barcelona

Celtic's Neil Lennon during a training session at Lennoxtown, Glasgow. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday December 4, 2012. See PA story SOCCER Celtic. Photo credit should read: Lynne Cameron/PA Wire.
Celtic's Neil Lennon during a training session at Lennoxtown, Glasgow. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday December 4, 2012. See PA story SOCCER Celtic. Photo credit should read: Lynne Cameron/PA Wire.

It was in a church, at the reenactment of what turned out to be the first meeting of Celtic Football Club, exactly 125 years earlier, that Neil Lennon felt the first pangs of hope.

As actors talked through a formal constitution that had been set up to fight poverty in the East End of Glasgow, back in 1887 in East Rose Street, the current manager of an institution of such size that Brother Walfrid, the club's founder that night, could not possibly have imagined, began to think the impossible.



There was a service, there were former players, there was a united board of directors and, trying to take inspiration from the history that filled the air, there was Lennon and his backroom staff.



Perhaps, he admits, they were believing for the first time that the huge groundswell of emotion with them meant that facing the greatest team in the world 24 hours later could be the perfect opportunity to write another rich chapter.



Barcelona at Celtic Park, 125 years and one day from the creation of a football club.



By the close of play on Tuesday 6 November, as Lennon headed home, Goliath was not quite as intimidating a prospect.



"I just started to believe there was going to be something special," he says. "It just compounded the atmosphere going into the game.



"We had a ceremony the night before and there was a real sort of ambience about the whole thing. It was really done in a lovely way. There were a lot of ex-players there. The board was there, everyone was there. You just felt the club was really united that particular night.



"And then to come such a long way in such a short space of time, to have Barcelona the next night to celebrate in the Champions League. You just felt there was a special significance about the whole couple of days.



"I was trying not to get carried away, but I just thought, 'We might get something out of this.'



"A point. I was never expecting us to win the game but I just felt if we competed, particularly at home, and with the crowd behind us, we might get something out of the game. To win the game was more than we could have bargained for, really.



"The significance of it being our history and our anniversary was just rolling into what felt like something that could be a really special night for us, and the fact we were going into there as underdogs as well was important."



From a small seed came something huge. Celtic Football Club 2, Barcelona 1. Celtic Park rocked. European football felt the tremor.



Lennon raced on to the field to celebrate with his players. He is still only 41, just two and a half years into a new career.



"It was just a famous night," he adds. "When Tony [Watt] went through at 1-0, I just thought, 'Keep your composure, son'. That was the only feeling that went through my head. Time goes slowly.



"He's got real natural attributes and he finished it like a seasoned veteran. He's gone through against Victor Valdes and he's buried it.



"When we scored, there were seven minutes left. My first thought was, 'We might get a point here.' I swear to God! They're so great, I thought there could be an avalanche coming again. Thankfully, they didn't score until the 93rd minute.



"There is a lot to play for here. We needed the Champions League this year, with Rangers not being in the league.



"That fixture was always a very good selling point for anyone because it's one of the best around. Having European football, particularly at Champions League level, after Christmas, has been really important.



"People in England are now looking at us and saying, 'Have a look here, there is high quality and it is something special.' "



The manager had led Celtic to the Scottish Premier League title by April, winning 17 consecutive games of football. He led them out of the Champions League group stage for the first time in five years.



Next, it is Juventus. "It's very exciting for me as a young manager," he said after the draw.



Lennon's is a life less ordinary. On the day we talk it is his son's seventh birthday. He will head off to referee a birthday five-a-side game when we have finished – 12 months to the day since he was speaking to a journalist about his own fight with depression, following the death of Gary Speed.



Earlier that morning, it had been announced that Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach he faced during that game, was set to undergo surgery on a saliva gland as he began a second battle with cancer. "He was a gentleman. It is very sad," Lennon says.



Earlier still, the two men who had been found guilty of sending devices they believed could explode and cause injury to Lennon had launched an appeal against their convictions.



How to deal with such a life? He could be more bitter. He should be more bitter. And yet.



And yet there is a refreshing desire to rise above some of the maelstrom that runs on a tangent with football – and especially "Auld Firm" football – with honesty. It is not accidental.



"We try and be as open and we try to be as honest as you can be," he adds. "Some people see it as a weakness. I don't think it is. I think it's fair and to the point.



"You get people talking to the cameras sometimes and you're watching and you're going, 'That's a load of tosh'. As a manager of a club of this stature, you cannot be that way. There is no point deflecting or trying to hide or anything like that.



"From when I took over, my philosophy will always be to be upfront with the press. I will tell you why – the press here are sharp and they will know when you're lying. I've known these guys a long, long time so I don't see any point in lying or trying to be smart. You'll end up with egg on your face.



"They have a hard job to do. It's a hard sell sometimes because there [are] so many working in such a small area, it's almost like a provincial environment and everyone wants the top story. It can be a bit cut-throat here; from my point of view I've tried to be as honest as I can be from day one.



"Obviously you have to draw a line somewhere but I'm pretty straight with them and they're pretty straight with me and that's the way you have to be in this environment because it is so intense. That was my philosophy going into the job; I didn't want to pull the wool over anyone's eyes."



If it all does get too intense at times, Lennon's release mechanism is his genuine love for the game. Football has helped him through the very difficult moments he has had to face.



"There are times I could have walked away but I felt obliged to the players. I have really built this team from scratch. They've come from all over the world for me as well as for the club.



"The one saving grace for me when I was going through a few tough times off the field – and you might find this a bit idealistic and a bit romantic – but coming in and watching those guys train and the joy they get out of playing football, gave me joy.



"Actually watching them play football and seeing them improve and seeing your good work going into a product on the pitch, gave me as big a buzz as anything off it. That kept me going for quite a while.



"I do have a strong bond with the players. I'm the manager, at the end of the day. There is a difference. We have staff, who are a buffer between me and them, but I do have a healthy respect for the young players here because it's not easy playing in this environment sometimes."



It is easier with a strong man at the helm.



Which Lennon is.

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