Matchday 12 was a high-scoring weekend in the Scottish Premiership, with 22 goals scored across…
A lot of people aren’t particularly fond of Neil Lennon. Whether it’s the specific style of football he successfully played in the English Premier League and at Celtic as a player, his outspoken and resilient personality or simply the manner in which he tends to conduct himself on the sideline these days. But there’s something about him that very few can deny: he’s a very good coach.
With Michael O’Neill recently rejecting the Scottish FA’s proposal to take over as national team coach, the big wigs at Hampden currently find themselves looking at a whiteboard with a series of names on it.
Paul Lambert and David Moyes’ names will be scored out. Alex McLeish is probably there. Derek McInnes and Tommy Wright too. Perhaps even Steve Clarke if we’re lucky. But for some reason the Hibernian coach hasn’t come up as a viable option as the next Scotland manager. Why?
Although Lennon’s last game may have been a narrow defeat to Hearts in the Edinburgh derby, few can deny that the former Northern Irish international has just about ticked all the boxes since he arrived at Easter Road.
Alan Stubbs may be the man who goes down in the Hibernian history books as the coach that won the all-important Scottish Cup and reached a League Cup final, but it was Lennon that finally got a grip of the club’s lingering form in the Championship and dragged them back to the top flight.
Yet it is the manner in which Lennon refused to rest on his initial accomplishment and push on this season that perhaps best defines him as a manager. While the Edinburgh side have always had ambitions of cementing their place as one of Scottish football’s biggest clubs, Lennon’s team have refused to bow to the perceived wisdom that a recently-promoted side should walk before they can run.
Wins over Rangers, Hearts and notable toe-to-toe duels with Brendan Rodgers’ seemingly unstoppable Scottish champions have not only breathed fresh air into the Scottish Premiership this season but underlined the seemingly limitless ability the 46-year-old has to make players run through walls for him. Rodgers will continue winning trophies at Celtic and McInnes will remain in the spotlight at Pittodrie, but it is Lennon and his battle-hardened Hibs that could end the season with the most praise.
Yet it isn’t at Hibs that Lennon has proved his worth as a coach. He did that almost eight years ago when he was thrown in at the deep end at Celtic. As we all know, the club turned to him to take over first-team operations after a disastrous spell under Tony Mowbray, and despite the odds being firmly stacked against him, Lennon proved his worth.
Hindsight is often heralded as 20/20, yet some Celtic fans would be forgiven for looking back at Lennon’s time in charge through the prism of perfection currently on offer from Rodgers and sheepishly shrug their shoulders. Lennon won a few titles, lost a few games against Rangers and then struggled in England, right? Wrong.
The Celtic team Lennon inherited were 10 points behind Rangers and would ultimately lose the league title in 2010, despite his immediate impact ensuring they won their remaining nine league fixtures. That summer, Lennon’s position got upgraded from caretaker to full-time coach and his first act involved dealing with the sale of Aiden McGeady, whilst dumping the dead rot of Artur Boruc and club captain, Stephen McManus, as well as 13 other players.
Lennon’s eye for talent and team building became apparent over the course of his four years at Celtic. Alongside the club’s superb scouting network, the manager signed and developed talents like Gary Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Mikael Lustig, Ki Sung-Yong, Joe Ledley and even Virgil Van Dijk. And although many of these players were seemingly always destined to play at a higher level than Celtic, there’s no denying that Lennon played a fundamental part in each of their progressions from relative nobodys to either Premier League stars or fan favourites at Parkhead.
Indeed, Lennon’s ability to get the best out of his players and build formidable teams inevitably led to considerable success. Rodgers may be the man who lifts Celtic’s tenth, consecutive Premiership title yet the history books ought to note that it was Lennon that wrestled domestic dominance from Rangers and set the club on their current path. And not just in a domestic sense either.
As we’ve already noted, Lennon’s record as Celtic manager in Europe rivals any since Martin O’Neill and the former club captain enjoys a better win ratio in Champions League qualifying and the group stages themselves than the current Celtic manager. All while doing so on a fraction of the money Rodgers and previous men in his job have had to work with.
Fans may remember that first summer and the defeat to Braga, but Lennon more than made up for it with qualification for the Europa League group stages the following season, miraculous qualification from a Champions League group that included Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow, before losing in the Last 16 to Juventus, and then the seemingly impossible task of getting out of a group involving Barcelona (again), AC Milan and Ajax.
Although that may not seem like much, Lennon’s teams picked up more coefficient points per season than Gordon Strachan’s ever did, while comfortably outperforming his predecessor and the man who would come to replace him, Ronny Deila.
Yet, perhaps the most indulging aspect of Lennon’s time at Celtic is the manner in which he continuously kept his team winning titles and pushing beyond expectation despite the club’s policy of making money in the transfer market.
In his first season Lennon sold McGeady, the club’s star goalkeeper and his captain. Shaun Maloney then left for Wigan. Then Ki the following summer to Swansea. The year after, Wanyama, Hooper and Ledley were all cashed in for Premier League fortunes. And throughout it all Lennon kept rebuilding championship-winning sides.
If, at this point, you’re tempted to suggest Lennon relied on his Celtic scouts to put good players in front of him, take note of the way the now-Hibs coach has managed to compensate for the loss of Jason Cummings this season. And the manner in which he’ll undoubtedly find a way to replace John McGinn when he finally moves on to bigger things. Few in the modern, Scottish game have proven to be as resourceful as the man from Lurgan and as good at getting the best out of what he has before him.
Putting aside an ill-fated stint at Bolton that was arguably doomed to fail regardless of Lennon’s best efforts, the young coach has a track record that few in the Scottish game at present can even compare to.
Of course, hiring Lennon to the post of Scotland manager is perhaps a PR move that the Scottish FA dare not dream of. Yet it’s worth noting that behind the fiery anger, outspoken remarks and misguided passion that can at times come to define Lennon is a man that has proven himself at every stage in Scottish football.
Where Strachan’s arrogance came from exceptional playing days and predated a managerial career that would often be undermined by his personality, Lennon’s has gone hand-in-hand with his approach to coaching and undoubtedly fuels his success. The previous Scotland manager barked with little hint of a killer bite, but Lennon is undoubtedly a different beast. He barks because he can and will bite. And perhaps that’s exactly what Scotland needs.
If your response to this article is simply “I don’t like Neil Lennon” then you’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether you like him or not — he has already proved his credentials and has never needed adoration to get the job done.