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Celtic: Lennon's Lions run on spirit of '67

Martin Hardy

The chants of delirious supporters were sporadically floating through the air around Celtic Park on Wednesday night when a man who must have been in his late forties walked towards the statue of Jimmy Johnstone that is erected outside the main entrance to the stadium, and very tenderly tapped the left foot that is set in bronze with his right hand. There was a gentle nod, a moment for himself and with that he walked off into the night.

^^Click 'More Pictures' to see The bargain Bhoys who beat Barca^^

He was paying tribute to history on a night that felt instantly historic.

There was much talk of it, and rightly so. Barcelona were beaten on an evening that magically lifted you above and beyond football's recent ills some 125 years and one day after the club had initially been formed, back in 1887. "One of the greatest nights in the club's history," came the immediate proclamation from the manager, Neil Lennon, and there were few dissenting voices.

His initial comparison, as the dust still struggled to settle on an unforgettable 2-1 victory, was directed at the substitutes' bench. In search of victory, Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach, had turned to David Villa, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. Lennon brought on a £50,000 signing from Airdrie United. He had four teenagers on his bench.

Insurmountable odds were overcome, and that, as it always will, drew comparison with the Lisbon Lions of 1967, the first British team to lift the European Cup, with a group of players that was born, with one exception, within 10 miles of the statue to which that supporter paid homage.

Celtic's team on Wednesday night could have been forgiven for looking to their side as they walked down the tunnel with fear. Lionel Messi will earn more in three months than the entire Celtic team cost to put together, but from there the window to the past opens. Before the European Cup final against Internazionale in '67, legend has it that Johnstone and Bertie Auld began singing "For it's a grand old team to play for" when the teams stood next to each other as they prepared to walk on to the field.

"There they were," Johnstone is quoted as saying. "Facchetti, Domenghini, Mazzola, Cappellini; all six-footers wi' Ambre Solaire suntans, Colgate smiles and sleek-backed hair. Each and every wan o' them looked like yon film star Cesar Romero. They even smelt beautiful.

"And there's us lot, midgets. Ah've got nae teeth, Bobby Lennox hasnae any, and old Ronnie Simpson's got the full monty, nae teeth top an' bottom. The Italians are staring doon at us an' we're grinnin' back up at 'em wi' our great gumsy grins. We must have looked like something out o' the circus."

It would have felt like a circus for Lennon back in 2010, when, in his third game as caretaker manager, Celtic were beaten 2-0 by Ross County in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. His first game as permanent manager in July 2010 saw Celtic slump 3-0 to Braga in the Champions League.

There is a recurring theme to Lennon's own recent story and it revolves around mental toughness. A brief snapshot of his life will tell you why it is a trait he demands, from himself and from those around him. An assault he suffered in 2008 for which his attackers were jailed, bullets in the post, parcel bombs and police protection. They are not customary, day-to-day management issues.

"No one in Scottish footballing history has had to contend with this level of pressure while trying to do their job," said Peter Lawwell, the chief executive at Celtic. "Neil has shown tremendous strength of character and resilience."

The team he inherited was said to lack the mental fortitude that playing for Celtic requires. He addressed personnel and, with the eye of football development manager, John Park, restructured his dressing room.

Jock Stein found players with character and talent within a decent jog of Parkhead. Lennon and Park stretched the net, from Newcastle to Nairobi. Victor Wanyama cost just £900,000 last summer. He has the No 67 shirt to honour the Lisbon Lions. His goal and commanding display on Wednesday have rocketed his value. Lennon put it at (a prohibitive) £25m but the Kenyan, just 21, is contracted until 2015. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster moved from Newcastle, where he could not dislodge Tim Krul, for just over £2m after a successful loan spell at the club. Gary Hooper, who did not play against Barcelona because of injury, was set for his first England call-up before injury struck, two years after leaving Scunthorpe. Joe Ledley was signed for nothing from Cardiff when his contract ran down. Tony Watt was a Celtic fan catching the eye at Airdrie who cost just £50,000.

They built a squad to win last year's Scottish Premier League, but Lennon wants more. Before the Champions League tie at Spartak Moscow he warned of "rough moments in the game when we'll have to be mentally strong". On landing in Barcelona he told his players: "We aren't here for a holiday. We're not here for tourist attractions. We're here to play football. We need character and mental strength."

On the evening of the second day of the Ryder Cup, when Martin Kaymer had not played a hole, Lennon texted the German's caddie, his friend Craig Connelly, to lift the player's spirits. Kaymer, as Lennon had jokingly predicted, bounced back on the final day to sink the winning put to seal a momentous comeback. "It's one of those seminal moments in sport that just inspires you," Lennon said. "It just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it and pull together."

They are words that could have come from Wednesday night. Or from 1967.

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