Cup win can make Lennon smile after painful season

Celtic's young team need to end a turbulent campaign with final victory over Motherwell this afternoon

Neil Lennon can finish his tumultuous first season as Celtic manager with a moment of triumph and hope.

His team play Motherwell this afternoon in the final of the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park and victory would frame the season's story as the success of a young team and coach under unfamiliar pressures. Looking forward, though, the crucial first trophy for Celtic's young squad would open the possibility of more rewarding future seasons.

At the end of Celtic's league campaign Lennon said that "this isn't the end, this is just the beginning". This reflects a sense that this Celtic team will improve and mature into the coming seasons better than Rangers. Celtic, needing to regenerate, bought young and gifted last summer. The embedding of the new generation produced some thrilling football at Celtic Park. Emilio Izaguirre, Gary Hooper, Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley, all born between 1986 and 1988, have excelled.

But Celtic have not quite had the maturity at decisive moments to win a trophy yet. They lost the CIS Cup final in extra-time to Rangers in March. And, when the title was theirs to lose, they did exactly that by losing 3-2 at Inverness on 4 May to gift Rangers the league. Experience teaches the importance of a team winning its trophy; it instils belief for future battles. A victory and a cup this afternoon may equip Celtic with those qualities necessary to beat Rangers to the title next year.

It is impossible, though, to consider the meaning of a trophy entirely within the frame of football. This season has displayed the most toxic excesses of sectarianism in the Scottish game. Lennon has been the locus of a campaign of hate unprecedented in British sport. In January Lennon was sent bullets in the post. In March two bombs, one a hoax, the other not, were posted to him. Earlier this month he was attacked on the touchline at Tynecastle by a Hearts supporter.

Lennon is known for his combative nature. At times he is antagonistic, although his squabble with Ally McCoist and his hands-cupped-to-ears gesture at Ibrox were reminders of what makes Glasgow's football so compelling. But his conduct in the face of both threatened and actual physical violence has been impressively calm.

Walter Smith said this week that similar threats would have driven him out of the Rangers job. "It would have been the end for me," he said. "I would not have been in the job any longer." Lennon is a marathon away from matching Smith's achievements in Scottish football but victory today would reward faultless nerve under unimaginable circumstances. It may also inspire his young Celtic team to greater successes in brighter times.

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