Football: Lennon remains unsung hero

Northern Ireland's midfielder will show what he has learnt at Leicester against France tonight.
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The Independent Online
THE PRESS at Filbert Street last Saturday wanted to talk only about the greatest gaffe by Sinclair since Frank's namesake, Sir Clive, tried to take on London's traffic with a 39-inch high electric tricycle, but Martin O'Neill was more interested in peddling a different story.

"Quite often for the last three and a half years I've come in here and said how strong and committed the Leicester players have been," he said, "but I have to say there were a couple of exceptional performances today and Neil Lennon was absolute class."

The following day's papers, however, were all about their opponents Chelsea's "extra class", even though they had been unable to make it count, and it wrankled not a little with Lennon. Leicester, he believes, rarely get the credit they deserve and when they do it's usually of the "hard-working", "committed", "great team spirit" variety of which even their manager is often given to talking about.

"We're tarred with the Wimbledon brush," Lennon said, "but those qualities which Wimbledon are famous for every team should have. We feel we also have some quality players here, too, people like Heskey, Izzet, Elliott and now Flowers. Maybe Tim's is the sort of name we can attract now which we couldn't do before."

One way in which Leicester certainly are like Wimbledon is in their ability to raise their game against the best. It was something that O'Neill was always good at doing as a player with Northern Ireland when they faced the Germanys of this world and he seems to have passed on the knack to his tenacious fellow Ulsterman. One can rest assured, Lennon will give a good account of himself against France in tonight's friendly at Windsor Park, Petit or no Petit, Deschamps or no Deschamps.

"The gaffer played the game at the top level, won the European Cup, captained his country but he never goes on about how great a player he was - he usually tells people how crap he was at times. He knows how tough the game is and is able to sympathise, even over simple things like when you find yourself short of breath, he'll remind you that you will get a second wind. He's been a big influence on me in the last few years, not just him but John Robertson and Steve Walford [the Leicester assistant manager and first-team coach respectively]."

O'Neill was Lennon's prime reason for coming to Leicester and his prime reason for staying and signing a new four-year contract. He is clearly not a man driven by money. Coming from a similar Catholic background as the Leicester manager, he says O'Neill understands him better than anyone and knows all his foibles.

"Had he left I can say, unequivocally, I would have left too," he said. "I had come to a crossroads in the my career, I'd just turned 28 and I was wondering if I'd missed the boat with regards to bigger clubs. Leicester made me an absolutely magnificent offer, but the gaffer played a significant role in my decision to stay."

Ever since he was rejected by Howard Kendall at Manchester City (and he is in pretty good company there), Lennon has been most fortunate with his choice of manager. It was Dario Gradi at Crewe who turned him into a player and also converted him from a full-back into a midfielder. But first of all, after being voted player of the year in his first season, he was a casualty.

"I injured my back quite seriously and was out for a year and half, which is a lifetime in football. There aren't many players who've come back from an injury like it but I worked really hard, five hours a day in the gym, and because I was only 20 I was still growing and developing physically. I recovered and haven't missed a game through injury now in three years. I learned a lot from the experience and it's made me mentally stronger."

Lennon reckons that if you put Gradi and O'Neill together you would have an unbeatable management team. "That should guarantee him a place in the side until Christmas," O'Neill said, when I told him. According to Lennon, O'Neill leaves all the coaching to Walford and Robertson and yet, rather like someone else not a million miles from Leicester who once upon a time was very close to O'Neill's heart as a player, "knows every little thing about you".

"He's a great man manager and just look at his buys," said Lennon. "He bought Izzet, Guppy, Elliott and myself for next to nothing and turned us into multi-million pound players.

"I cannot speak highly enough of Dario, either. I learned a lot from him, little things like movement on and off the ball, things that four or five years ago no one was talking about but now they're all talking about. Premiership level is all about results, whereas with him it was all about performance. Sometimes he could take real heart out of a defeat. I remember he had a little saying pinned up on his office wall: `Winning hides a multitude of sins', it said."

Just how much "winning" Leicester do this season will be largely dependent on their central-midfield pairing. Lennon and Muzzy Izzet may not exactly have the same ring as Lennon and McCartney and it is certainly an unsung partnership, but it called the tune against Chelsea, even if they were without Didier Deschamps. There will not be many sides who do that this season, nor hold out for as long as they did against Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit at Highbury on the opening day. Izzet, according to Lennon, will be "banging on England's door" before much longer.

The two games enabled Lennon to assess two of the championship's leading challengers, and at this early stage, the Irishman put Arsenal narrowly ahead because of their greater strength in depth. He is more concerned, however, with Leicester closing the gap on them and accepts that they are still "one or two players short" of being a top-six side.

The Coca-Cola Cup win two years ago which was followed by a very creditable performance in Europe whetted their appetite. Lennon believes they can be a class act again.