INTERVIEW After mourning a friend and a harrowing court case, Neil Lennon returned to find his Celtic
T’S not exactly the big game preparation they recommend in the coaching manuals. No manager in football history has come into a cup final on the back of the commitments Neil Lennon has faced in the past five days. Lennon helped carry the coffin of his friend, Paul Mcbride QC, at his funeral on Monday and the following day he was in the witness box at the trial of the two men accused of plotting to kill him. Grief, anger, stress – he could have be forgiven for having headspace for everything except football.
Kilmarnock would have no wish to capitalise on his awful distractions in tomorrow’s Scottish Communities League Cup final and in that sense they would be as pleased as any right-minded observer to hear Lennon say that his focus was firmly on the match. “I went through a couple of tough days, but I’ve got something to really get my teeth into now,” he said.
One or two complaints have caused him to be tetchy with BBC Scotland and one newspaper this week, but he was typically expansive when discussing the cup final at his weekly media briefing at Lennoxtown yesterday. After the two trials – the metaphorical one of Mcbride’s funeral and the actual one at the High Court in Glasgow – it was a relief for him to rejoin his players at their usual training session on Wednesday, when preparation for the final began in earnest.
“We normally get down to the nuts and bolts of our preparation on Thursday and Friday, so this week has not really been different,” he said. “And I’ve got a good backroom staff who can take care of things when I’m not here. Today’s been a really good day, it’s the best the players have looked for a wee while. I’m not saying that’s an indication of how they will play on Sunday, but I’m pleased with the condition and the frame of mind they’re in.
“Preparation is all very well, but it’s about what happens once you cross that white line. We felt we had the preparation right for Ross County, but you could tell 10 minutes into the game that the players weren’t right. So we have to be very wary of Kilmarnock. They deserve to be in the final and it will mean a hell of a lot to them if they win it.”
Tomorrow will be the seventh time Lennon has taken charge of Celtic at Hampden. There were defeats by Ross County in the 2010 Scottish Cup semi-final and Rangers in last year’s League Cup final, but victories over Aberdeen in both of last year’s semi-finals, Motherwell in the Scottish Cup final, and Falkirk in this season’s League Cup semi-final. As a player he had more successes than failures at Hampden too – four cup final wins and two defeats – yet it is not one of his favourite grounds. Lennon has talked of his fondness for the tight, claustrophobic atmosphere of Tynecastle and Hampden, with its gentle slopes and enormous distance between pitch and stands, could not be more different.
“It’s all about personal preference, but it’s not one of my favourite grounds in Scotland, just because of the dynamics of the stadium. It is a superb stadium, don’t get me wrong, I just feel it’s too far to the playing surface. I think there will be a good atmosphere at it on Sunday, there will be a huge crowd at the final, but sometimes when you’re playing in semi-finals it’s half full. The acoustics aren’t that great and it just lacks a little bit of atmosphere at times. But when it’s full it’s an excellent venue.”
At least he’ll be considerably closer to the action than he was at last year’s final. Lennon knew he was suspended for the Old Firm final as part of the punishment imposed for his infamous touchline altercation with Ally Mccoist, but not until moments before kick-off did he realise exactly where he would be sitting in the stand. His seat was far, far further back than he had expected. “I was right up the back. I needed binoculars. If I’d have been any further back I’d have been in the car park. I was surprised by how far back I was. I might get a closer view this year.”
What he watched 12 months ago was Joe Ledley taking the final into extra time by equalising Steven Davis’ opening goal for Rangers, only for Nikica Jelavic to score the winner with a shot which struck both posts before crossing the line. There is no derby element this time, only the conundrum of working out how an unfathomable Kilmarnock team is likely to play.
The Ayrshire side have beaten Rangers home and away and were 3-0 up against Celtic after more than 70 minutes in October, before being pulled back. They have lost 3-0 to St Mirren and Dunfermline Athletic and conceded six goals at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. They are as enigmatic as their manager, Kenny Shiels. “Kenny is a good guy,” said Lennon of his fellow Northern Irishman. “I know he’s had a few spats with people, but people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, know what I mean?
“I am really pleased that things have gone so well for him because he has worked very hard. Every time I watch an SPL game Kenny seems to be there. He is meticulous in his preparations. I am surprised by how well he has done. I thought he might have struggled because it is his first real test at this level as a manager. He has done a brilliant job. Bringing in Jimmy Nicholl [as assistant] has been a really good piece of thinking.”
Shiels had said it would be a “travesty” if Celtic’s form this season was not rewarded with a treble. That sounded like kidology, of course, but it amused Lennon. “It’s very complimentary and I appreciate those sentiments. I think it would be a travesty myself . . .”
Neil Lennon was in the stands for last year’s League Cup final due to a touchline ban, but will be in the dugout at Hampden tomorrow. Picture: SNS