As a player, Neil Lennon is most often remembered as fiery and combative. Yet while this description holds some truth, it does scant justice to a midfielder whose intelligence and measured passing justified every penny of the £6m Celtic paid for him in 2000.
Fast forward 14 years and Lennon the Celtic manager is often similarly misjudged, seen as all passion and little precision. The truth, as results show and his players testify, is very different, with tactical adaptability, eloquence and imaginative transfer dealings having marked out his success-laden spell in charge.
Man-management skills were also highlighted this week by his captain, Scott Brown, who spoke of Lennon’s “incredible” record being indebted to “making you believe you’re a better player”. The result is that Celtic, a traditional giant now overshadowed by the colossal wealth of clubs in the neighbouring English Premier League, are currently facing speculation not about their star players, but their manager.
“Flattered, but grateful for the job I have,” is Lennon’s stock response to such rumours, although Celtic's chief executive, Peter Lawwell, is realistic that his “ambitious and highly talented” manager will eventually be tempted south. For now, though, Lennon is basking in the glow of having won a third successive Scottish title - his eighth as manager and player - and strengthened his club’s position as the current century’s dominant force.
And while Rangers’ exile from the top flight continues, Celtic’s manager told FIFA.com that he is already planning for next season’s UEFA Champions League campaign, and for another summer of significant transfer activity.
FIFA.com: Neil, congratulations on another league title. Do you now find yourself becoming a little blasé about winning them, having racked up so many here?
Neil Lennon: Never. I probably did at one stage as a player, and then when we didn’t win the title for the first time I realised what we had lost. As a manager, I’d say I actually get a lot more satisfaction from them. It’s more quiet satisfaction than the kind of celebrations you’d have as a player, but the feeling – especially from making it three in a row – is pretty special. And I never take it for granted because you always know that you can lose it very quickly. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. A lot of people looking in from the outside will say, ‘Ah, but you don’t have Rangers at the moment’. But there’s nothing we can do about that and, anyway, I think it would have taken a very good team to have stopped us this year. We’ve only lost one game in the league and the consistency has been tremendous.
That consistency was sometimes missing last season, when the players seemed to lose their focus during the Champions League run. Have you done anything differently this season to keep them motivated for the domestic fixtures?
We knew within ourselves that seven league defeats last season was far too many and that 79 points was a disappointing return – well down on the two seasons before, when Rangers were still in the league. Keeping the players concentrated on improving that has been a big thing for us this year. Coming back from Champions League games is always difficult – the mental and physical demands of playing on a Wednesday, travelling, and then playing again on the Saturday – but we’ve managed to find the balance this year. The disappointment was that we didn’t do a little better in the Champions League itself because, for all that we had a very tough group with Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, we had hopes of doing better. Now it’s just a case of preparing for next season, evolving the team and making it better. And we do feel we’re moving in the right direction.
How do you reflect on that Champions League campaign? Getting through the qualifying rounds was tough enough, but the group phase ended up falling a little flat.
I honestly think it was a great achievement just getting in, when you consider the hoops we had to jump through. There was so much riding on those qualifying rounds – so much tension – and those games, against teams who were well into their seasons, were incredibly nerve-wracking. Once you’re in, you want to enjoy it. But it was a real group of death we had once again, and the reality is that the teams we were up against this year had better quality and depth than we did. We competed well in the early games, and when we got the win against Ajax I thought we might just do it again. But the last three games were poor and we could have no complaints at going out.
Your preparations for this season were disrupted by the sales of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and, later, Kelvin Wilson – essentially the spine of the team that had performed so well in the Champions League the season before. Do you anticipate less upheaval this summer?
It’s a good question, and the honest answer is that I don’t know. I think there will be suitors for a couple of our big players, and one or two are coming out of contract, so you’d have to expect they’ll be leaving. Realistically, I think we have to expect another decent turnaround, with a few players going out and few coming in. Bids are all but inevitable for a couple of our players; it’s just whether we accept them or not. But everyone has their price and we’re preparing with that in mind, looking at other options for the positions concerned.
Celtic have enjoyed a good record over the past few years of digging out at least one gem every summer, with Virgil van Dijk the latest. Are you confident you have another one in your sights for the coming close season?
I hope so. We’re already looking at a few players we like, and with the league now settled, it gives me the space to go out myself and look at a few who are under consideration. But whether we can keep on unearthing little gems, or big gems, is another matter. Our strategy has worked on the whole, but other clubs are now looking at our model and trying to copy it. And you can’t always get your signings right. You just hope that your record of good ones outweighs the bad because it’s such a crucial part of the job.
You’ve mentioned potentially scouting players at the World Cup, having signed Emilio Izaguirre on the back of the 2010 edition. Is that something you’re still keen on?
I expect it to be a great World Cup and I’d love to sample it, but I’ll need to see if I can squeeze it in between a holiday and coming back for the [Champions League] qualifiers. I’ve been asked to do a bit of punditry work but I wouldn’t mind just going out there, seeing it all for myself.
And who’s going to win it?
That’s a tough one. Personally, I think it will be a South American team. I’ll be very surprised if a European side goes over there and does it, although you can never write off Spain. People keep mentioning Belgium, but I can’t see it. I’d be looking at Brazil and Argentina. The conditions over there will suit them, and with Brazil being at home, they’ll start as favourites. But Argentina, with the quality and firepower they have, can’t be ruled out. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.
You mentioned potentially doing some media punditry. Did you ever consider that as a career option, or was coaching and management always your aim?
I definitely considered the media side of things because, to be honest, it’s an easy gig. It’s a walk in the park compared to management anyway. But when I started taking my coaching badges, I just thought, ‘Yeah, I really enjoy this. I’d like to have a stab at it’. Then I started working under Gordon [Strachan, former Celtic manager] and that whetted my appetite even more.
You were in charge of the development team under Strachan and Tony Mowbray, working with the club’s young players. Was continuing as a coach, rather than becoming a manager, ever a consideration?
I’ve got to say, I did enjoy working on the youth side of things. I was happy there. But having been captain here, operating at the highest level, you think to yourself that you’ve got to at least try to be the manager. When the opportunity arises, you know you might never get the chance again so you just grab it with both hands and see where it takes you. Now, here we are, four years down the line and I have no regrets.
One thing that never changes in football is that it’s about players. The better players you have, the easier your job becomes. Interacting with the players I have here – learning their character traits, what motivates them, their culture, their religion, their sense of humour – is a part of the job I really enjoy. Getting the most out of them as individuals, and as a group, is a great challenge. The squad we have here is pretty diverse and that’s a consequence of our transfer policy, looking to countries like Honduras, Israel and South Korea. And I enjoy seeing how these guys adapt to British football and the culture here; learning about Celtic and what it means to so many people.
Although it’s only a few years since you retired as a player, one of the major changes in that time has been the rise of social media and its influence in football. You were one of the few high-profile managers on Twitter but recently closed your account. What is your view on the challenges social media poses for players and managers?
It’s funny you should ask that because I think I’m going to go back on Twitter. They’ve asked me to come back and I think I probably will because I did enjoy it. The problem was that it started taking up too much of my time. But I certainly don’t have a problem with the players going on and engaging in that type of thing. What’s made very clear, though, is that there’s a line they cannot cross. They know where that line is. It’s important to realise though that social media is here to stay and, as long as it doesn’t detract from my players’ duties to this club, I don’t have a problem with it.
Like everything in life, there are good things and bad things about it. What I don’t like, say with the criticism of David Moyes recently, is the type of criticism that comes from it – almost trying to humiliate the man. I find that very crass and unfortunately it seems to go with the territory these days. I’m not sure whether someone like David is sensitive to it, but he’s a human being at the end of the day and he has a family who must read some of this stuff. Constructive criticism you expect but the poisonous stuff – and I’ve had it myself – leaves a bitter taste.
Management is known for being a lonely job. Who helps get you through the tougher times?
My staff are very important, and my family of course. But it is lonely at times, there’s no question about that. And only someone who’s stood in your shoes and done the job can really understand it. The pros do far outweigh the cons though, and I’ve found the good times have been well worth putting up with the bad.
You’ve recently spoken out in support of a Scottish PFA campaign highlighting mental health problems in football, having suffered from depression yourself. Is that an important cause for you, and do you see a greater understanding emerging?
It is, and I was happy to do it because it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s a major problem among sportsmen and women. Talking about it is the first step to recovery and, in terms of understanding, it’s important to get across to people that it is an illness. In my case, it was genetic; there was nothing really traumatic in my life that brought it on. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and there has been a stigma attached to depression in the past. People in the game – managers and coaches especially – have a greater understanding of it than we did even five or ten years ago, and I can recognise the warning signs sometimes in my own players. It’s not about feeling bad about a bad performance; it goes way beyond that. It’s an illness and it’s vitally important that it’s treated and understood as such.