Neil Lennon’s champagne dreams with a Kool-Aid budget

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Sitting there in the dugout was hard enough. He’d rather be running with his players, doing anything but sitting. So Neil Lennon got up. But standing wasn’t helpful, either.  “I was up and down and up and down,” he told reporters. “I was trying to stay calm, but inside my stomach was churning.”

He was living the final defining moments and seconds of his managerial career, and they were horrible. The type of minutes you want to hasten, not savour. Five minutes of stoppage time stood in the way of his Celtic — and it is increasingly becoming his, the imprint of his success becoming more and more indelible in this most historical year, its 125th, for the club, and the next round of the Champions League.

So Lennon chewed his gum. “It’s taking a pounding,” said one commentator. But he needn’t have worried. Georgios Samaras did such a good job possessing the ball – hording it, really, as he had all game, in the farthest corner of the field that time ticked off harmlessly. And then the whistle blew. Lennon threw his arms in the air, but, being one of the most effusive managers in the game, he did not bellow or run rampantly or bawl. He was stoic.

Nothing came from the man who leapt for joy and ran to hug each of his players after beating Barcelona weeks ago. No, there was much more at stake here — his reputation, his future, his team’s qualification. But his team did it: a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow, coupled with a fortunate draw between Benfica and Barcelona, sealed Celtic’s spot in the Round of 16. Relief prevailed over the rest of his emotions.

“To have this on my CV so early in my career,” Lennon told reporters after the match, “is marvellous, honestly. It means a hell of a lot to me. I might not look it, but I’m actually f****** delighted.”

Without the stressors of a rich oligarch breathing down his neck, watching his team’s every rise and fall in the standings, pinned back in a league many forget about, Lennon has still cut one of the tensest figures in the sport. In a year of celebration, of anniversary, of dreams made and hope realized, he has threatened to quit. He has experienced so much joy, endured many disappointments — winning against Barcelona one day; tying Arbroath the next - in one and half years in charge of Celtic to last a manager’s whole lifetime.

That’s because, under the 41-year-old there’s something redemptive about this team, something economical about its use of opportunities, something sentimental, too. Its ground, Celtic Park, has regained its status as one of the loudest arenas in football. They scored when they had to, and only could, bagging goals with a higher rate of efficiency than Barcelona or Real Madrid. And Rod Stewart famously cried after that famous win against the Catalans, a day after the club celebrated their 125th birthday.

So much has been reclaimed after many years of frustration in Celtic’s half of Glasgow, before last season’s title-winning campaign in the Scottish Premier League, they had only lifted one piece of silverware since 2009. So much has been salvaged in a year of supposed dearth in Scottish football in a year when the Old Firm was torn apart as Celtics’ arch-rival, Rangers, were sent packing to Scotland’s lowest tier of professional football as a result of bankruptcy. So much has been proven in a year when many, Lennon said, did not even think his team could earn a point, let alone 10, matching a Scottish record with Rangers.

Lennon has held down one of the most demanding, and potentially deadly, jobs, but not without considerable angst. Only last year were bombs and bullets addressed to him in the mail. Only two weeks ago did he crack in the face of criticism, saying he’d happily leave if “the fans make it clear they are not happy, and want me out.” The pressure of the job has gotten to him, and it will again. When his team is on the verge of doing something great, as it has been, the criticism will come as fast as the praise.

Balancing commitments to the Champions League and Scottish Premier League, though, has proved Lennon’s toughest challenge. Celtic still remain in pole position, but at the price of some history and ignominy along the way: they lost to Kilmarnock at home for the first time in 57 years; they have earned only eight out of a possible 18 points in their past 16 games; and they have dropped points like cookie crumbs, leaving a trail for Hibernian, one point off Celtic’s lead, to keep up.

Lennon has said that the league is the priority, that playing in the Champions League is not possible in the first place without domestic success. And he is right. But Europe beckons now, stronger than it has before. This is only the third such occasion the ‘Bhoys’ have been one of Europe’s final 16. This is a chance, on the global stage, to carry a message in the name of Scottish football, to promote the brand.

And Lennon’s doing it in the humblest of ways: building from the ground up. He and his chief scout John Park did an excellent, and frugal, job recruiting Victor Wanyama — as crucial to Celtic as the theme of greed to J.R.R. Tolkien — and Gary Hooper, the highest-scoring Englishman in the Champions League. Lennon found both and paid little to get them. And Lennon inspired so much in his players, enforced tactics of defence “alien” to them only to watch them perform those plans perfectly against the greatest team that world has ever seen.

Wanyama learned the history of the club, and wears No. 67 in tribute to the famous 1967 squad that beat Inter Milan, making Celtic Britain’s first-ever European Cup champion. They play for Lennon as much as they play for Celtic. He is a part of the team’s fabric. Spending big — even if their earnings so far this campaign, marked at around US$48-million in winnings by the Daily Mail, makes it more possible than ever beforeonly rips that fabric apart, Lennon said. He won’t do it. “I don’t want to spend mega money on one player,” he told reporters, “because that will only disrupt the spirit here.”

So when fans argue with him, chew him out behind the dugout, it’s because they know they’re one with him. They know Celtic are a democracy. They argue because they care, and they know he cares about what they have to say, too. He is a man of principle, stature and emotion. But the fans have to be grateful. Lennon’s Celtic are embarking on a journey that’s left big-spending Manchester City and Chelsea on the wayside, without a second thought. Celtic have done more than money can buy. They have shown you can still have champagne dreams with a Kool-Aid budget in Europe, and that realization is one of the few charms left in the competition. You can still surprise, still shock, still upset the tenants of top-flight football.

One of Manchester United, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Malaga or Schalke shall come along next. For Lennon, the seconds in that next game will be even harder to withstand. He’ll want to run up and down the pitch and expend all that nervous energy at once. And he may as well. After all, he is one of the 'Bhoys'

Anthony Lopopolo is making his debut as a contributor to AFR, whose expertise lies in Italian calcio and European football. You can follow him on Twitter at @SportsCaddy. Give him a warm welcome and leave your comments below please.

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  10. mikeylove said: Lennon is still paying players 25,000 a week. its not like his entire team are on 5K a week. APOEL probably paid their players less that celtic and they made it to what the quarter finals ?
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