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Neil Lennon: gifted Bhoy now a man apart at Celtic

I hadn't seen Neil Lennon for a long time. Must have been five years or more. Much has happened to the man from Lurgan in between. Some good, some bad and some downright ugly.

It's testimony to the Celtic manager's strength of character that he remains involved in football at all.

He can come across as a serious, intense bloke when you see him being interviewed on television or when he is standing on the touchline. Indeed one Celtic fan told me outside Parkhead that he wished the boss would smile a bit more.

Anyone who knows Lennon will happily tell you he's good company who enjoys a joke, as was the case, when our paths crossed once again at a Glasgow press conference.

He had a laugh when the banter was flying about his relationship with the Scottish media and being a fella who never lost touch with his roots he lapped up the gossip from back home about the Northern Ireland manager's job.

He was in good form. Mind you, he had just been named Manager of the Month for November having guided his team to five league wins out of five, which would become six out of six the next day.

I used to see Neil on a regular basis when he was playing for Northern Ireland.

Lenny, as I knew him then, was immensely proud to be playing at the highest level and one of the most generous players in the squad. He was always available for a quote with a point of view that was interesting and insightful. He hasn't changed in that regard.

Lennon played in a Northern Ireland side filled with characters who gave their all on the pitch and knew how to enjoy themselves off it.

There was Neil, Steve Lomas, Iain Dowie, Jim Magilton, Tommy Wright, Keith Gillespie, Michael Hughes and Gerry Taggart, all strong willed men, many of whom not surprisingly have gone on to coach and manage with a fair degree of success.

Travelling with that vocal lot was an experience, so different to the modern day, mainly quiet as a mouse, internationals.

In the Northern Ireland dressing room in the late 90s, if you weren't willing to speak up, you simply would not be heard.

Amongst his peers Lennon, who had established himself with Leicester City after showing potential at Crewe, was a well respected figure.

I appreciated that on a trip to Dortmund when in a middle of a row over a story with some big hitters in the Northern Ireland squad, Lennon, the voice of reason, told his team-mates to give me a break.

Even then in his 20s, the Bhoy Lennon was a man apart with the courage of his convictions.

From Leicester, the ginger haired midfielder, who once flirted with the bleach blond look, moved to Celtic. Once the speculation about that transfer began, journalists following Northern Ireland felt there was a subtle change in Lennon's demeanour. He was less forthcoming, not so open.

Looking back now that was probably understandable. He was on the verge of a dream move to the club he had supported all his life, but was sure to be considered controversial by some Northern Ireland supporters. Tougher still, what no one knew at that time was that he was suffering from depression.

Desperately trying to deal with that illness, he also had to cope with shameful booing by a small, but significant number of Northern Ireland fans during a friendly in his first Windsor Park appearance as a Celtic player.

Worse was to follow when he received a death threat before another friendly international in Belfast, forcing him into early international retirement having won 40 caps and scored two goals.

His career as a player continued successfully at Celtic.

Loved by Hoops followers, he was always unpopular with opposition fans — and at times didn't help himself — but the hate reached disgusting new levels when he became manager.

This year he received more death threats, bullets have been sent to him in the post and one lunatic attacked him as his team played an SPL game at Hearts.

There was also the unsavoury touchline confrontation with Ally McCoist, now the boss at Rangers.

Lesser men would have crumbled. Not Lennon who has fought the demons of depression and now appears as confident, positive and relaxed as he did all those years ago when he was a young lad.

It was good to see.

He speaks with the type of refreshing honesty that top level sporting heroes often lack.

Talking to him again, no topic was off limits, including the prospect of him becoming Northern Ireland boss one day.

As this newspaper revealed on Saturday, Lennon said it would be “a privilege” questioning, however, if the public would want such a scenario.

In any case he's more than happy managing Celtic, though that hasn't stopped him keeping an eye on the race to become Nigel Worthington's successor, especially with three of his old international buddies — Magilton, Dowie and Michael O'Neill — in the running.

“In terms of the three guys, they are fine candidates,” says Neil.

“Michael has been a stand-out with what he has done with Shamrock Rovers and I think Jim was really unfortunate to lose his job with QPR. He built the platform for what they are doing now. He also did a fine job at Ipswich.

“Iain has had a very experienced career already at managerial level and knows the game.

“I wouldn’t have a favourite out of the three of them. I know them very well and any one of them would be an outstanding candidate.”

Declaring that the Northern Ireland manager's job must be full-time — Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers supposedly turned down an IFA approach about doing it on a part-time basis, although that was denied by chief executive Patrick Nelson — Lennon perhaps surprisingly believes that achieving a place in a major finals in the near future is achievable, adding that he had sympathy for Worthington and the way his reign ended.

“I think Nigel was unlucky in one of the campaigns and then the expectation rises and because we didn’t do as well in the last campaign people wanted him out.

“It is very difficult for Northern Ireland, but I think there’s a championship in us sooner rather than later.”

Lennon, of course, is not the only SPL manager with Ulster connections. He will come up against two of them in the coming weeks, his old international midfield partner Lomas, who is in charge of St Johnstone and former Ballymena United and Coleraine boss Kenny Shiels, who is the manager at Kilmarnock.

“Kenny has been around the game for a long time and has done very well since taking over at Kilmarnock,” said Lennon.

“I think in Stephen’s case he always had the capacity to be a manager because of his personality and the way he played the game. Both are good football people, there’s a lot like that in Northern Ireland.”

Then comes a pause.

“And we’re cheap,” he adds with a mischievous grin. See, he does smile.

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