Lennon quick to lavish praise on Strachan

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The Independent Football

The taunt that Celtic fans once used to rile Rangers with must have had a hollow ring over the last eight months. "You'll be watching The Bill while we're in Seville," was how they goaded their Old Firm rivals before the 2003 Uefa Cup final.

For the last eight months, it is Celtic fans who have been catching up on midweek television. Their shock removal from Europe by Artmedia Bratislava in the qualifying round of the Champions' League was compounded by watching Rangers go on to reach the last 16 of the competition before losing to Villarreal on the away goals rule.

However, Celtic used the time to lick their wounds. In the absence of any European distraction, they adopted a single-minded philosophy to the Scottish Premier League. The reward came last Wednesday as 60,000 Celtic fans lifted the roof off Parkhead as they celebrated a 40th Scottish championship.

The occasion was as cathartic as it was joyful. The loss of their title in the final minutes of last season at Motherwell scarred Celtic even before the departure of Martin O'Neill. What then transpired on 27 July in Bratislava almost consumed Gordon Strachan before his work as successor had even begun.

The Celtic manager revealed after the 1-0 success over nearest-rivals Hearts, which secured the title six games early - with a 20-point lead over the Edinburgh side - that his watch stopped that night in Slovakia and he had worn it ever since as a reminder of "the worst night of my whole career".

Now Strachan has Celtic ticking along nicely. He has replaced the worn-out parts of O'Neill's side - John Hartson is set to head south again to join Chris Sutton - and only Stilian Petrov, Bobo Balde and Neil Lennon will remain from O'Neill's old guard. Lennon was presumed to be the man who might have suffered most under Strachan, given his closeness to compatriot O'Neill, yet he became Strachan's captain and is looking for one more season, now at 34, so he can lead Celtic back into Europe.

"I'll sit down with the manager and Peter Lawwell [the chief executive]," Lennon said. "I could walk away a very happy man but there are lots of incentives to stay. I've won four titles, three Scottish Cups, two League Cups and played in the Uefa Cup final but the one thing I've not done is qualify for the latter stages of the Champions' League."

Juventus, Liverpool and Milan were among the teams who failed to win at Parkhead when O'Neill's side turned their home into a fortress and were not beaten in European or domestic football for 77 games between 2001 and 2004. Yet Lennon believes that Strachan could eclipse O'Neill's achievements if given the time and backing.

"The football we've played this season is as good as anything I've been involved in at Celtic," said Lennon. "We have the second-best defensive record in the League, we're the leading goalscorers and we're 20 points clear. The credit has to go to the manager. I felt sorry for him at the start because he had massive shoes to fill.

"After what happened at Motherwell, people said it would be three or four years before Celtic would win the League again because the manner in which we lost it was so psychologically damaging, but we have shown great character."