If Neil Lennon’s pre-match demeanour is anything to go by, his return to the Old Firm fixture will not further intensify an already manic scene. A relaxed, composed Lennon on Friday expressed hope that his prospects will not be intrinsically linked to success or otherwise against Rangers.
When Celtic tumbled, 1-0 at Ibrox in late December, Lennon was still the Hibernian manager. Two months later, after Brendan Rodgers had abruptly exited Scotland for Leicester City and Lennon had done likewise from Easter Road, the 47-year-old was handed a managerial return to the club with which he will always be instantly associated.
As and when Celtic retain their title, for what would be an eighth win in succession, it would be a shock if Lennon is not given the opportunity to pursue the magic number of 10.
Yet for now his deal runs only until the summer; nothing, not least in the eyes of Lennon himself, is a certainty. In match five of this tenure, on Sunday, Rangers come calling. “I don’t think my future is based on the result of one game or two games against Rangers,” Lennon said. “It’ll be the whole package over the three months I’ll have been in charge. My role here doesn’t depend on Sunday.
“There is a lot of speculation surrounding that but that’s all it is, speculation and conjecture. I’ve obviously taken no notice of it. We’re keeping it all level at the moment. I know there is going to be a lot of noise outside but you leave that to other people.”
What Celtic must take cognisance of is that Rodgers, for all his domestic success, did not leave a perfect scene behind. Before the annually testing domain of Champions League qualifying ties, the club must source key personnel: centre-backs and at least one striker, primarily. That Lennon has inherited staff, playing and coaching, also means his role is not as straightforward as many would perceive.
“It is a different voice; they miss the influence of Brendan and his staff,” Lennon conceded. “We have tried not to change too much of anything at all really and manage them along as we go.” Celtic have a lengthy injury list and the manager admits he will soon need to “shut down” Celtic’s highly rated left-back Kieran Tierney as he continues to battle fitness problems.
Revenge is not overtly stated as Celtic’s weekend goal but is the obvious undertone. The last Glasgow derby witnessed arguably the worst domestic performance of Rodgers’ trophy-laden reign. “They need to learn from that and draw on the experience of how they felt afterwards as well and use that as a motivation,” Lennon said. “Obviously in analysis we’ll be showing them some clips of the game and where we didn’t do so well. But since that game there’s been a tremendous reaction, particularly domestically. The mentality of the team has been very good.” Indeed, Rangers were level on points with Celtic after that clash and, futile as it was to prove, dreaming of a title tilt.
Lennon first experienced an Old Firm fixture as a player in February 2001 and nine years have passed since his managerial debut against Rangers. Lennon laughed on Friday when running through the players in his side for that 2-1 win. “I worked a miracle that day, didn’t I?”
He added: “I’m probably a lot calmer this time. I’m more experienced and a little less hot- headed. When you win this game, it’s a huge relief. When you lose? It can be difficult. I’ll just let the game take its course and try to help everybody keep their emotions in check as you can get carried away, as we’ve seen before. I think a lot of the players will have their own self-motivation for this game after the defeat at Ibrox. It will just be a question of reminding them of their good habits.
“We need to start the game well. We have to earn the right to play. The [points] cushion helps, there’s no question of that. We know if we win it’s a huge gap.”
No needle is likely to exist between Lennon and his opposite number at Rangers, Steven Gerrard. The pair are not only neighbours in the west end of Glasgow but Lennon has described the Liverpool icon’s playing career as worthy of a “modern day great”. The undoubted high point of Gerrard’s first campaign in management was that success during the festive season but Rangers have been dogged by inconsistency.
“What he did for Liverpool individually as a player was very, very difficult to compare with anyone else in terms of trophy haul and performances in big games,” said Lennon. “I think he manages as he plays. He’s a winner and he sets good standards for his players and his club.”
The kind of tit-for-tat business that is an Old Firm prerequisite means Rangers will be backed by hundreds rather than thousands of supporters.
Lennon agreed such a scenario detracts from the derby spectacle. “But that’s not my decision,” he added. Earning the right to shape policy over the longer term remains his prime objective.