IN­TER­VIEW Af­ter mourn­ing a friend and a har­row­ing court case, Neil Len­non re­turned to find his Celtic

The Herald - Herald Sport - - Football -

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

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