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Celtic hot-seat is heaven for Lennon

By Stuart McKinley

Neil Lennon turned up for work yesterday morning expecting just another day as Celtic’s reserve team coach.

When he left Parkhead in the afternoon, however, he was the man handed the responsibility of leading one of Europe’s biggest clubs for the remainder of the season.

And given what he was like as a player, it’s not a responsibility that Lennon will shirk in any shape or form.

Thirteen proved to be very unlucky for Tony Mowbray as Wednesday night’s embarrassing 4-0 defeat at the hands of St Mirren took their number of losses this season into the teens and that was enough to bring his time in charge at Celtic to an end after just nine months.

With Mowbray and his first-team coaching staff gone, there was only one man the Celtic board could turn to as they looked for someone to come into the breach. Step forward Neil Francis Lennon.

For a Bhoy from Lurgan dream jobs don’t come much bigger.

He hankered to play for the club since kicking a ball around the streets of the Co Armagh town in his boyhood.

He’d have crawled over hot coals to get there, but he didn’t have to as the dream became a reality in 2001 when Martin O’Neill took him to Glasgow, following the Kilrea-man from Leicester City six months after he’d made the same move.

Lennon was truly in Paradise at that stage.

Five league titles in seven years, three Scottish Cups, two Scottish League Cups, a UEFA Cup final appearance and taking Celtic to the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time just made it even better for the man who’d grown up with a green and white hooped shirt on his back.

Playing days over, when the chance came to return to Celtic as a coach there was no time spent thinking about it. Lennon made the move and when Mowbray came in last summer he moved others aside to put Lennon in charge of the reserve side.

Eight months ago he could have been manager of Stockport County. He told me at Solitude on the night that Celtic played Cliftonville in the north Belfast club’s 130th anniversary match back in October that the Edgeley Park job was his if he’d wanted it.

He turned it down and how glad Lennon must be now, with the opportunity to manage the club he loves handed to him.

The appointment initially is until the end of the season, but in that time Lennon has the chance to earn himself a longer shot at making Celtic the major force in Scottish football once again.

Ten points behind Rangers in the title race, it’s unlikely he’ll turn that around.

If he does pull off that particular miracle then the job is his.

A more attainable target is the Scottish Cup. Ross County stand between Celtic and the final, where they would meet either Raith Rovers or Dundee United.

They’ll have had harder tasks at this stage of the competition in the past and putting a silver lining on what has been a largely disappointing season in the east end of Glasgow — they never really got the better of missing out on the Champions League group stages — would put Lennon very much in pole position to succeed Mowbray in the long term.

And the best piece of news for him is that there is backing from the people who matter most — the fans.

These are the same fans that never really took to Mowbray. The old boss had four years at Celtic as a player, but Lennon is different. He really is one of them and while popularity doesn’t keep you in a manager’s job, it can help get you through an extended honeymoon period and that’s what Lennon will now be granted.

Peter Rafferty, president of the Affiliation of Celtic Supporters' Clubs, said: “He knows all about the club. He maybe lacks the experience in that kind of position but he is an enthusiastic person.

“As a player, he always played for the jersey so the fans can identify with that quite strongly.”

“They players need an infectious character, someone who knows what it's all about and who has played for the club and won trophies with the club.

“At this moment in time, he is probably the best choice all things being considered.”

Celtic confirmed Mowbray’s departure in a statement, in which chief executive Peter Lawwell said: “This is a very sad day for everyone at Celtic. Tony is a very fine man and someone who I know is passionate about the club.

“Clearly, we have had a difficult season and results have not been as we would have hoped.

“Tony is equally disappointed at some of our results this season, but I know that he has always given the club his total and absolute commitment.”

Reacting to his departure, Mowbray said: “Naturally, I am very disappointed to be leaving Glasgow Celtic.

“I am very proud to have not only managed but also played for a club with such great tradition and that has tremendous roots in football history.

“I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all of the players and also to my staff who supported me so well. Finally, I would like to wish the club every success in the future.”

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