Football: Lennon on a grand stage

Ian Ridley meets the Ulsterman enjoying a week-long tilt at the big names
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The Independent Online
Last Wednesday it was Liverpool, this one brings Germany and three days later it will be a game against Manchester United. To boot, Leicester City have six points from six; these are days to be savoured for Neil Lennon.

The carrot-topped midfield player arrived at Leicester from Crewe for pounds 750,000 in the midst of a promotion campaign 18 months ago, hungry for the Premiership at the age of 25. A season after making it, his simple but effective passing, tigerish tackling and energetic fetching and carrying give him the air of one who has been at the top for years.

"Martin O'Neill seems to have this eye for players who have something to prove," Lennon said of his fellow Ulsterman. "I came at the same time as Steve Claridge and last season Matt Elliott arrived. We all felt we had had a few wasted years and were determined to seize the chance."

Leicester have been seen as the new crazy gang, winning the Coca-Cola Cup last season on team spirit and determination alone. It is an image beginning to be privately resented within Filbert Street, even if publicly it suits their purposes as bigger teams overlook their footballing abilities.

"We fancy ourselves against the big teams because we do have a resilience," Lennon said. "We have this persona of being a hard-working, ball-winning, spoiling team but we also feel we have five or six quality players who could play in the Manchester United or Liverpool teams."

If football is about winning your personal confrontation with an opponent, then Lennon is having his fair share of success. Paul Ince may have surpassed him last Wednesday for range of passing and finally scored a goal, but he was frequently subdued as Leicester won 2-1.

"Ince and Roy Keane are quality and set the standards you want to achieve," Lennon said. "But the one thing against them you mustn't be is intimidated. Once Ince smells a bit of fear, he will walk all over you."

Before Keane on Saturday comes Dieter Eilts of Germany, another of those understated players overshadowed by stars but beloved of managers. Northern Ireland's chances of reaching the World Cup finals may have gone in one of the toughest qualifying groups, but Lennon still believes the team capable of beating the Germans in Belfast, having drawn 1-1 in Nuremberg last November.

"We were lambs to the slaughter there after they had won Euro '96 but they played nowhere near their potential and Tommy Wright in goal had a great game," Lennon said. "The same thing can happen again and at Windsor Park we are capable of beating anybody. We also have a great record against the Germans.

"Our problem has been inconsistency, but I suppose that is always going to happen with a young team on a learning curve. I'm still on it myself despite a year in the Premiership. The international scene is different from the hurly-burly of the English game and we've got to learn how to grind out results."

Lennon is proof that affordable talent is still to be found at home; at Dario Gradi's Crewe in particular. In the match at Anfield on Wednesday, another Gresty Road graduate, Rob Jones, who is likely to return to Glenn Hoddle's England squad next month, started on the opposing team.

"At half-time we brought on Robbie Savage, Liverpool sent on Danny Murphy, and it suddenly occurred to me how nice it was that there were four of us," Lennon said. "I'm sure Dario would have noticed. It's a great credit to him." In the city where the name of Lennon is revered, it was he, however, who made the sweetest music of the night.