Neil Lennon's star on the rise without domestic strife
Celtic manager benefits from Rangers' demotion as he aims for Double
Sunday 26 May 2013
A misdemeanour almost kept Neil Lennon from leading his side out for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden. He broke the terms of a touchline ban last month by entering a restricted area too soon after the final whistle in a game against Motherwell at Fir Park, but the Scottish Football Association's punishment was a one-match ban suspended for 12 months. It seems fitting that Lennon, at the end of a defining season, can take his place at the forefront of this Celtic side he built rather than concern himself with disciplinary matters.
In many ways, this is the campaign during which Lennon came of age as a manager. Winning the Scottish Premier League for a second consecutive season was expected to be comfortable, with Rangers playing in the Third Division due to last summer's insolvency. Yet Lennon excelled, because without the familiarities of domestic football he was able to capture attention.
Lennon's emotional attachment to Celtic – he grew up in Northern Ireland supporting the club – means he is keenly aware of the club's history. Winning a League and cup Double will secure his place among the club's notable managers.
To the majority of the fans he is already a revered figure, but that is as much to do with his background as a Catholic from Northern Ireland who has encountered prejudice during his time in Scotland.
Defeating Hibernian today would be a rousing finish to a campaign that saw Lennon guide his side to the last 16 of the Champions' League after beating Barcelona at Celtic Park in the group stages.
That result, when improbability was swept aside by a gloriously raucous atmosphere and tactically astute and diligent performance, brought acclaim. Lennon had devised and coaxed an outstanding performance from his team, and briefly he was a fêted manager.
The moment did not pass him by. He had already taken advice about his image and how to raise his profile in England, and he became a regular on national TV and radio. He saw this as an opportunity to present himself.
He had changed his demeanour. While he is still edgy and forceful on the touchline, there have been fewer confrontations with officials and the football authorities. A long chat with Sir Alex Ferguson, who visited Celtic's Lennoxtown training complex last year, was helpful in guiding a young manager – Lennon is 41 – but also in establishing that he is in the mind of British football's most influential figure.
Lennon is ambitious, and has admitted to wanting to test himself in England or the Continent. He has been linked with the vacancies at Everton and Stoke while his former club Leicester City have also been mentioned as a possible destination, yet it seems absurd to consider leaving Celtic, who are all but guaranteed a shot at trying to qualify for the Champions' League for two more seasons at least, for a smaller club in the Championship.
This might be his moment of highest profile, and Lennon can use his standing for leverage. His relationship with Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, tends to fluctuate, though Lawwell has always stood by Lennon, even through off-field dramas. The manager has a stronger relationship with Dermot Desmond, the majority shareholder and powerbroker, and they were due to meet last week to discuss Lennon's remuneration and transfer budget.
Lennon wants a greater say in recruitment, although the club's hierarchy and transfer policy, involving the development manager, John Park, overseeing talent-spotting in under-utilised markets such as Honduras, is widely admired and generally self-sustaining.
Winning the Scottish Cup would further embolden Lennon. He has managed cleverly and commandingly this season, particularly since the competitive tension of the Old Firm rivalry has been missing. There have been mundane displays, but mostly Celtic have been brightly effective.
They are clear favourites against Hibernian, even if the Edinburgh side won one of their three encounters in the League, with another one drawn. Pat Fenlon's side can be industrious and dynamic, but almost all of their threat gathers around the guile and impetuousness of Leigh Griffiths, on loan from Wolves.
Hibs bring their own narrative to the final, having not won the Scottish Cup since 1902. That burden will tend to draw a sympathetic support from the rest of Scottish football today, and winning would be a cathartic moment as well as a historic one. The club suffered a 5-1 defeat against local rivals Hearts in last season's final.
For Lennon, this is an opportunity to emphasise his standing as a manager of growing reputation. For Hibs it is a chance to atone.
Celtic v Hibernian is on Sky Sports 3 today, kick-off 3pm
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