Lennon embraces Celtic challenge
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He has battled depression, been attacked on the street and faced paramilitary death threats. Neil Lennon is no stranger to adversity, nor to challenges that dwarf those presented by football.

Still though, there were plenty who wondered if the former Celtic captain realised what he was letting himself in for when he last week took charge of the Scottish giants. Glasgow, as the likes of Dick Advocaat, Martin O'Neill and Paul Le Guen will testify, presents a uniquely intense environment for any manager, never mind one just starting out in his career. With football on the front and back pages, and second place the equivalent of finishing last, winning trophies and outdoing your bitter rivals is the only option.

Tony Mowbray was given just nine months before Celtic's board decided he wasn’t up to the job, with Lennon the man they turned to to lead the team for the remainder of the season, and hopefully beyond. The 38-year-old, who had been coaching the club’s reserves, immediately got in touch with O’Neill, the manager who paid £6m to take him to Celtic in 2000, and Gordon Strachan, the man who made him captain.

Their advice? “Don’t do it!” Lennon joked at his opening press conference. “No, they said you've just got to be yourself and enjoy it. You don’t know until you try it, do you?

I know there is the thought that you need experience to manage a club like this, but I hope to prove that wrong. Pep Guardiola has done alright at Barcelona, so if anyone is an example, he is.
Neil Lennon, 38, on assuming the Celtic reins

“I know there is the thought that you need experience to manage a club like this and maybe you do, but I hope to prove that wrong. The most experienced managers in the world have come to the Old Firm and not done as well as they probably would have liked to. Pep Guardiola has done alright at Barcelona, so if anyone is an example, he is. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me and I want the job for keeps.”

Citing the example of Guardiola, who completed a clean sweep of major trophies in his first season in charge, is inevitably tempting for any rookie manager. Yet Lennon will know that he has taken charge of a team very different to that inherited by his counterpart at Camp Nou. Celtic could fall 16 points behind Rangers should Walter Smith’s side win their games in hand, this after Mowbray’s fate was sealed by a scarcely believable 4-0 defeat at lowly St Mirren last week. Few saw this final, fatal humiliation coming, yet Lennon recognised it as symptomatic of a team that has proved prone to fragility and mental weakness on all too many occasions.

“There is a bit of a soft mentality there,” he said. “People may say that Rangers players are not as talented as the players we have, but they have a good work ethic, a good team ethic and they don’t know when they are beaten. I want to instil that into us. The bottom line is winning games, by hook or by crook.

"Our biggest weakness has been a failure to see it through on too many occasions. And I'm not just talking about us losing late goals. I've been just as concerned about the late goals we don't score ourselves. There should be a fear factor about facing Celtic and it doesn't seem to be there at the moment.

"It takes a special mentality to play for the Old Firm and, if you don't have it naturally, you had better acquire it quickly. I will try and make them realise what the shirt means for so many people. Celtic are one of the best supported teams in the world and have great supporters who have suffered this season. The players know that. They have been told that and it is up to me to get them winning.”

Lennon has already set about doing that by tweaking Celtic’s style of play. With Mowbray, himself a disciple of Guardiola’s Barcelona, seen to have become a slave to a patient, expansive philosophy, his successor will be championing a different form of attacking football. "I want us to be more direct and press teams more and get the crowd going; speed up the tempo of the game,” said Lennon.

He will go into that dressing room and rattle a few cages. That was his style as a player and he’ll be the same as a manager. As a coach, he is brilliant at motivating.
Gary Caldwell on his former team-mate Neil Lennon's appointment as Celtic manager

The early evidence would suggest that this higher-tempo approach may well cure some of Celtic’s ills, with a 3-1 win over Kilmarnock providing much to admire in Lennon’s managerial debut. Another Bhoys hero, Swedish defensive stalwart Johan Mjallby, has been brought in as the Irishman’s assistant, and the indications are that winning the Scottish Cup and the final Old Firm derby of the season will earn the pair permanent appointments. Some, including Gary Caldwell - a former team-mate of Lennon’s who was sold by Mowbray in January - believe that Celtic may have found just what they need.

“Lenny won’t mess about,” Caldwell told The Herald. “He will go into that dressing room and rattle a few cages. That was his style as a player and he’ll be the same as a manager. As a coach, he is brilliant at motivating. He lets you know what is at stake. This is a great opportunity for him. He served his coaching apprenticeship under Gordon Strachan and now he’s the man in charge.”

Lennon has won his first match. Now all he needs to do is keep winning, then win some more, and management in the Glasgow goldfish bowl might not prove so demanding after all.