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John Laverty: Why Neil Lennon should think twice about Celtic return

 

Big call: Neil Lennon will face a tough decision should Celtic offer him the manager’s job full-time
Big call: Neil Lennon will face a tough decision should Celtic offer him the manager’s job full-time
Brendan Rodgers

By John Laverty

Is Neil Lennon getting the Celtic job? That's a tough one. True, the Lurgan man has steered the Bhoys towards yet another treble, winning eight and drawing three of the 11 matches he was in charge of since taking over from compatriot Brendan Rodgers in February.

Critics sneered that Lenny returning to Parkhead was actually good news for the rivals, but crucial victories over Hearts, Rangers, Kilmarnock - and, of course, Aberdeen last weekend - muted them somewhat.

Sneering at Lenny, one of the most divisive figures in Scottish football history, is of course de rigueur outside of 'Paradise'.

Even inside it, the 47-year-old former Northern Ireland international divides opinion. Many Hoops devotees were underwhelmed when the terrace hero first took up the managerial reigns, replacing Tony Mowbray (the man who disproved the theory that any idiot could be successful at Celtic) nine years ago.

Sure, he'd been a terrific player for them but could he hack it as boss?

Three successive league titles would suggest an affirmative answer… and yet.

He couldn't get the better of Rangers in his first full season, finally landing a championship trophy the year Celtic's bitter rivals were plunged into administration. His subsequent two titles, in 2013 and 2014, were derided as one-horse races.

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On the other hand, Lenny masterminded epic victories in Europe and qualification for the Champions League knock-out stages - something Rodgers won't be remembered for - and his recruitment of Van Dijk, Wanyama, Forster, Hooper, Ledley and Griffiths would suggest he had the jump on 'Brent-an' in that department too, despite the Carnlough man's vastly superior purchasing power.

Indeed, Celtic's undoubted domestic dominance under Rodgers came at a high price; by the time he decamped to Leicester, staff costs alone had shot up to £60m a year - chicken-feed in English Premier League terms but some 30 times more than the majority of Celtic's top-flight rivals.

Brendan's 'legacy' will be a vastly curtailed budget for the next manager as Celtic press for 10-in-a-row - with this Sunday's opponents Rangers, resurgent under Steven Gerrard, clearly desperate for that not to happen.

The Rodgers-Lennon title, clinched at Pittodrie, was Celtic's 50th - now just four behind the Gers and three behind Linfield.

To be fair to Rodgers, who left under a cloud after practically sprinting from Parkhead to the King Power, he did win every domestic trophy he competed for and, when the serious questions were asked after Celtic lost at Ibrox in December - bringing Rangers level with them at the summit - the hitherto misfiring champions reacted by reeling off seven in a row - which is no mean feat.

They were eight points clear when Lenny, who'd endured a torrid time 'down south' with Bolton and, bizarrely, was neither sacked by, nor resigned from, but still left Hibernian, took over as interim boss.

The Celtic hierarchy said the appointment was a "no-brainer", but I can't help feeling it was partly influenced by the terrific job Solskjaer had done after replacing Mourinho at United in December.

Ironically, Solskjaer's subsequent travails at Old Trafford may well be one of the reasons Celtic didn't respond to their latest title victory by immediately announcing Lenny as their next full-time boss.

United were (and still are) hoping the Norwegian will become another Dalglish, but fear he'll turn out to be another Di Matteo.

As caretaker, Lenny has done everything asked of him and may yet steer Celtic to the unprecedented 'treble-treble' with victory over Hearts in the Scottish Cup final.

But why would he want the job on a permanent basis?

He might come across as a fearless, gung-ho, thick-skinned, outspoken, Gers-baiting rhino, but the Lenny I got to know as a combative young Crewe midfielder in the '90s is a lot more sensitive than his persona suggests.

He seemed to relish the 'stick' he got as a player in Scotland but the abuse meted out to him in the four years he was Celtic manager would challenge the strongest of characters.

This was a man who left home every day knowing that, at least, he'd be verbally abused; at most he'd be physically attacked. He suffered death threats, had bullets posted to him and was even assaulted by a fan within the supposedly safe environs of his own dugout.

Resilience and bravery is one thing, but everyone has a breaking point; honestly, who was really surprised when Lenny, having been so open on his battle with depression, walked away from the Glasgow pressure cooker five years ago?

Lenny says he doesn't want to discuss his future until after the cup final. I suspect he has as much to vacillate about as his potential future employers.

Talkative, articulate and comfortably well off, he is in big demand from TV companies and won't end up rattling a tin on Argyle Street. He was en route to a Champions League punditry gig in Dubai three months ago when Celtic chief Peter Lawwell rang with an offer that suited both parties.

It's been suggested in some quarters that Lenny accepting another full-term stint at Celtic would be the bravest thing he's ever done.

An even braver decision would be to take himself out of the running for it.

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