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Northern Ireland greats predict intriguing FA Cup clash

By Steven Beacom

Neil Lennon has previous at Anfield. He won there as a player for both Leicester City and Celtic and will take his Bolton side to the famous arena later this month with a sneaky feeling that he can do the same as manager.

He is not alone. Lennon’s ex-international team-mate David Healy says he would not be surprised if the Lurgan man pulled off a shock result against Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

The tie will generate much interest, not least in Northern Ireland because it will see the country’s two most high profile club managers go head to head for the first time in a competitive fixture.

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers and Lennon, when he was in charge of Celtic, have met before but that was only in a friendly – this time it WILL matter.

While Carnlough native Rodgers has endured a difficult campaign after almost enjoying a stunning Premier League title success last season, Lennon is on the up having taken charge of the Trotters in October.

He arrived with Bolton bottom of the Championship thanks to just one victory in 11 league fixtures. Now they are in 15th place and being talked about as play-off outsiders with Lennon’s record reading eight wins, three draws and three defeats in all competitions.

Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer Healy was with Lennon at his new surroundings last week talking about coaching and management and believes that the Bolton boss, like Rodgers, who he has also spent time with at Liverpool’s training ground, is destined to manage in the Premier League.

“When Neil was appointed Bolton manager there were questions in the local press about whether he was the right man for the job. Now everyone realises it was a great appointment,” said Healy.

“I think there is a myth surrounding Lenny from his time in Scotland that he is all about passion on the touchline, but he has much more to offer than that. You only have to listen to him to realise how much knowledge he has on football. He talks so much sense.

“People may have thought that being successful in Scottish football wasn’t difficult, but Neil proved himself on the Champions League stage too with clever tactics which led to big, big wins. I believe he’s destined to be a Premier League manager one day.

“And I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he set up his team in such a way that they gained a positive result against Liverpool in the FA Cup,” added Healy, now the Northern Ireland under-16 coach.

“Liverpool got through against Wimbledon the other night thanks to their captain Steven Gerrard. It seems like everyone in football is already talking about Stevie G playing his final match for Liverpool on his birthday on FA Cup final day. He would certainly deserve it, but I can’t see it happening because better sides like Chelsea and Manchester City are left in the competition while Bolton are very dangerous opponents.”

Another of Lennon’s former Northern Ireland team-mates Michael Hughes echoes the view that Liverpool face a stern examination against Wanderers.

“I have been following Bolton closely because another of my old pals Dougie Freedman was the previous manager before Neil and I was interested to see if he would make many changes,” said Hughes, winner of 71 caps.

“He actually hasn’t changed it around too much. Bolton have good players and I think what Neil has done is come in and galvanise them.

“They are on a good run of form and I wouldn’t bet against Neil going on and leading Bolton into the play-offs this season, even though he took over when they were in the relegation zone.

“The same thing happened to us at Crystal Palace years ago when Iain Dowie became manager. We made it into the play-offs and then won promotion to the Premier League. The work-rate we put in was ridiculous but it was worth it.

“The Liverpool game is an ideal opportunity for Neil to say to his players that they can go to Anfield and give it a real go. I would think they’ll enter that match with confidence. It is going to be a stiff test for Liverpool.”

Hughes also keeps a close eye on events on the red half of Merseyside. His old Milk Cup team-mate Rodgers has been under pressure in recent months, but the former West Ham and Wimbledon ace insists the County Antrim native remains the man for the job.

“Defensively Liverpool have their problems. It’s not up to me to say to Brendan what is required though I’m sure he will be looking at recruiting at the back to make the team more solid,” said Hughes.

“I’ve heard people suggest this season that he could lose his job but to me that’s just crazy talk. He showed what he could do last season almost guiding Liverpool to the title so he should be okay where his job is concerned. To me this is a transitional time for Liverpool with Luis Suarez leaving last summer and Steven Gerrard going this summer. Brendan Rodgers is the man to oversee that.”

Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup hero Gerry Armstrong says that the new signings at Anfield have to start producing for their manager.

“Brendan’s situation at Liverpool isn’t as good as five months ago because the team hasn’t played well this season,” said Armstrong.

“He has had bad luck in certain games and obviously the loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona and the injury to Daniel Sturridge has not helped. The big factor though has been too many of the new signings not delivering enough. Brendan brought in players with potential in the summer but they need to start proving they deserve to be at Liverpool.”

On the match up between Lennon and Rodgers in the Cup, Armstrong said: “Neil will love going to Anfield and will relish the chance to create a shock. Home advantage for Liverpool however should give them the edge.

“You have to admire what Neil is doing at Bolton though. He had a job offer in the Middle East and could have made a lot of money going over there, but he thought about his career in British football and went to Bolton who have really improved under him.

“When Neil was doing his coaching badges with the Irish FA, I gave a talk about my experiences in football. I remember thinking at that time that as a coach he would be well organised and really professional and that’s how it has worked out.

“He did well at Celtic and now he is making people sit up and take notice of him at Bolton.”

Northern Ireland great Hughes, who has known Lennon since their teenage days at Manchester City, added: “I look at Neil today and when I see him on television he appears a happy man. He got out of the goldfish bowl in Glasgow and it seems a great weight has been lifted off his shoulders and he feels better within himself. There is a lot to be said for that.”

BRENDAN ROGERS FACTFILE

Date of birth: January 26, 1973

Hometown: Carnlough

Playing career: Ballymena United (1987-1990), Reading (1990-1993), Newport (1993-1994), Witney Town (1994-1995), Newbury Town (1995-1996)

Teams managed: Watford (2008-2009), Reading (2009), Swansea (2010-2012), Liverpool (2012-present)

International honours: Northern Ireland Schoolboy international.

Rodgers on Lennon: "I'm looking forward to it because it's at Anfield, and we love playing there in front of our supporters. And because Neil Lennon is a good friend of mine, it'll be nice to come across him. He's done great since he came into Bolton."

NEIL LENNON FACTFILE

Date of birth: June 25, 1971

Hometown: Lurgan

Playing career: Glenavon (1986-1987), Manchester City (1987-1990), Crewe Alexandra (1990-1996), Leicester City (1996-2000), Celtic (2000-2007), Nottingham Forest (2007-2008), Wycombe Wanderers (2008)

Teams managed: Celtic (2010-2014), Bolton Wanderers (2014-present)

International honours: Northern Ireland U21, U23 and B international. 40 senior Northern Ireland caps.

Lennon on Rodgers: "I spoke to Brendan during my first year as Celtic manager and learned his philosophy on the game. He had a great coaching time under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and then did great things at Swansea and is now progressing Liverpool in the right way."

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