Brendan Rodgers V Neil Lennon: Local pride at stake as Bolton takes on Liverpool in FA Cup
Neil Lennon is relishing tomorrow night’s showdown between Northern Ireland’s top club managers when he takes Bolton to Anfield for a fourth round FA Cup tie against a Liverpool side managed by Brendan Rodgers.
It may be Liverpool v Bolton but, given the bosses involved, it’s also being billed here as Carnlough v Lurgan — and Antrim v Armagh.
“If it was a Gaelic match, it would be no contest,” quipped Bolton boss Lennon, who played for the Orchard county at minor level.
The former Celtic manager added his hope that the people of Northern Ireland would be proud of two of their own going head to head in such a high profile fixture.
“It will be nice for people back home. I hope they can take a bit of pride in what we’re both doing. Football is huge there,” said Lennon. “As long as we can hold our own, that’s important.”
Lennon says his Championship underdogs will give it a go at Anfield and Rodgers expects nothing less from a team led by someone he admires and expects to become a Premier League boss soon, be that by guiding Bolton into the top flight or being headhunted.
“Neil has done an outstanding job at Bolton,” said the Liverpool boss.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers says Neil Lennon is Premier League bound
Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers made no bones about it. Heaping praise on Neil Lennon, he declared that the Lurgan native’s managerial future lies in the Premier League... with or without tomorrow’s opponents Bolton.
The compliments were flying in the other direction too as Lennon hailed the Carnlough native before their first competitive meeting — an intriguing fourth round FA Cup clash at Anfield.
All very cordial between the two close pals who spoke at length about each other yesterday. Can’t imagine the action on the pitch will be so friendly.
Lennon was used to high profile night matches while in charge of Celtic, especially in the Champions League, but this is his biggest one yet since taking charge of Championship outfit Bolton, who he has guided from bottom spot to mid-table in the space of three months.
Rodgers has watched with interest, convinced that soon he will be going toe-to-toe with Lennon on a more regular basis in the top flight of English football.
“Neil Lennon has done an outstanding job at Bolton. He has made Bolton difficult to beat and got them moving up the table,” said Rodgers.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they made it into the play-offs.
“In the very near future, Neil will be in the Premier League, either with or without Bolton.”
Speaking about Lennon’s time at Celtic, Rodgers, 42 on Monday, added: “People don’t realise how difficult that Celtic job is.
“It’s one of the most difficult jobs in the world. The pressure is on every single game to win.
“He did outstandingly to get them into the Champions League and when he left he probably felt he’d taken them as far as he could. I was very surprised he didn’t get a Premier League job then.”
The respect between the Northern Ireland pair is clearly mutual. It started in 2009 when Lennon went to watch the coaching methods of Rodgers at Reading, where the County Antrim man was boss for a short spell.
“I’m not surprised how well Brendan’s done. He was so methodical in his preparation and his training sessions were brilliant. I still use some of them now, but don’t tell him, I don’t know if he has the copyright on them!” joked Lennon.
“I had a couple of days with him and I really enjoyed it. He talked about his coaching days at Chelsea and about his own ideas on the game.
“It didn’t go well for him at Reading, but Swansea was a great success and he’s gone on to do brilliant things at Liverpool.”
Lennon was hugely impressed by Rodgers almost inspiring Liverpool to title glory last season and says that after a difficult period earlier this campaign, the performance in Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final, first leg 1-1 draw against Chelsea suggests the Reds are hitting peak form again.
“What Brendan did last season was give the supporters their belief back, not just with results, but in the style of football as well,” said the 43-year-old from county Armagh.
“There’s been a bit of transition for him this year, obviously the loss of Luis Suarez was huge, but he has found another way of playing.
“They were breathtaking on Tuesday. Some of the football was out of this world. I’m so pleased for him, a fellow countryman, that he is doing so well at a club where the pressure is huge and the expectation levels are huge.
“He’s travelled here, there and everywhere to learn and he’s found his own niche in the game.
“He’s putting his own stamp on the game and the style of football is very good to watch. I’m sure the Liverpool fans are enjoying it at the moment.”
Lennon, who will have ex-Liverpool striker Emile Heskey in his squad, is keen to ensure though that the Kop don’t enjoy tomorrow,
“We’re not going to go to Anfield and sit back and admire them — we are going to compete and try to cause them problems,” said the former Northern Ireland midfielder, who won at Anfield as a player for Leicester and Celtic.
Rodgers is ready for the challenge of an in form Bolton side and confident that his team, unbeaten in nine matches, are moving through the gears. Such was his upbeat move yesterday, he predicted that next season the Reds will challenge for the title again.
“This season has been about getting into the top four, minimising the impact of so many new signings, giving them the time to develop, and targeting a trophy in the cup competitions,” said Rodgers.
“I believe the squad has Premier League winning capabilities. We just need time to evolve and work together. Come the summer that integration will be complete, then we can go on and challenge for the title again.”