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Stephen Craigan: There's no denying Neil Lennon's influence

Pointing way: Celtic boss Neil Lennon
Pointing way: Celtic boss Neil Lennon
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

Celtic maintained their relentless pursuit to retain the Scottish Premiership title with a 2-0 win against Hearts on Wednesday night. They made it nine straight league victories and yet again showed great resilience and character at Tynecastle.

In the early part of the game, they weren't at their best and Hearts were on the front foot but this Celtic side have plenty of experience in this situation. They stayed calm, didn't give Hearts any encouragement, waited for their moments to arrive and duly delivered with two stunning finishes from Ryan Christie and Olivier Ntcham.

In this form it's genuinely difficult to see who can take league points off the champions. When you consider guys like Tom Rogic, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton can't get a game, it just highlights the strong position they are in.

When you rewind to Neil Lennon's full-time appointment immediately after the club's Scottish Cup victory in May, a lot of cynics are having to eat their words. I heard some people saying that it was a backwards step, and others claimed it was an old pal's act. Lennon was written off in many quarters and plenty of people thought his return would be the demise of Celtic's dominance.

Well, they couldn't have been further from the truth.

Celtic are currently 10 points better off than at this stage last season, they're into the last-32 of the Europa League after topping their group for the first time, they have captured the first domestic trophy of the season and they've also laid down a marker to their rivals Rangers with their scintillating form.

How much of that is down to Lennon? From what I can see, a huge amount of it.

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Prior to Neil returning to the club, Celtic looked a bit stale and with the speculation continually surrounding Brendan Rodgers and his future the team clearly needed a change of direction. They needed a new figurehead, someone to galvanise them as Rodgers had done previously and a man who knew what it meant to manage a club of Celtic's stature.

Everything pointed to Lennon.

He'd left Hibernian under a cloud and undoubtedly had a point to prove that he was still a top manager. Not many people get to manage a club like Celtic once so to get a second opportunity at it would have clearly got his adrenaline pumping.

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He has changed a lot personally since his first spell; he's more in control of his emotions pitch-side, yet still speaks with so much passion when addressing the press. He doesn't want to challenge every decision on the sideline and is very much an assured presence in his technical area. His relationship with his players is there for all to see; he's like a father figure to them and there's a real mutual respect.

He certainly hasn't lost his mojo and his will to succeed is stronger than ever.

His signings have re-energised the team. Christopher Jullien was his big summer signing for £7m and now looks every bit the player Lennon hoped he would be.

Jeremie Frimpong has been an inspirational piece of business and at 19 years of age his best years are ahead of him. He's brought such charisma on and off the pitch for someone so young and is already a fans' favourite.

Fraser Forster is also showing once again why he was capped by England with some incredible performances.

Don't underestimate the influence of Lennon in all of those acquisitions.

On Lennon's personal achievements, he's now joined Billy McNeill as the only two men to win all three domestic trophies as a player and a manager with the same club.

That's not bad company to keep.

Belfast Telegraph

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