Neil Lennon On Managing Celtic, Beating Barcelona And Future Ambitions

Neil Lennon On Managing Celtic, Beating Barcelona And Future Ambitions

Part two of a two-part interview with Neil Lennon, by Callum McFadden for WFi. Part one can be found here.

Upon retirement from football, you returned to Celtic as a youth team coach and first-team coach before becoming interim manager in 2010 following the departure of Tony Mowbray. How did you approach that interim role? Did you back yourself to earn the job full-time?

“At the beginning, I honestly never thought about getting the job on a full-time basis.

“My sole aim was to see the season out and build as much positive momentum within the group as possible to benefit the club in the next season.

“That being said, I always believed that I had managerial potential in me and I thought about leaving the club to become a manager elsewhere before the interim opportunity arrived.

“During that interim period, despite losing in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, we won all eight league games that I was in charge of and the club thought that I had done enough to earn an opportunity of becoming the next permanent manager of Celtic.

“I had worked with the youth team and achieved success with them then continued that in my short time with the first team which earned me that opportunity.

“It was an honour and privilege to manage Celtic.

“I was not long out of the game as a player and I had played, captained and coached at Celtic so I knew the club inside out and the expectations that come with playing or managing Celtic.”

Overall, how do you reflect on your first time in charge at Celtic? 

“We built a strong squad that had exciting players within it. As a club, we recruited well and our aim was to develop young players who could become top-class players which many of them went on to do such as Virgil Van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster to name just a few.

“Domestically, we came close to winning the league in my first season but just missed out on the final day after a disappointing result at Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the run in which ultimately cost us.

“We also reached the league cup final and won the Scottish Cup so we made progress in that first year.

“Winning that Scottish Cup trophy was a catalyst for further success and meant a lot to me because it was the first trophy that I had won as a manager.

“I felt that we had the makings of an exciting young team which we went on to prove in the coming years.

“We went on to win three back-to-back league titles and another Scottish Cup in addition to making real progress in Europe by reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.”

On route to the last 16 of the Champions League, you defeated Barcelona 2-1 at Celtic Park when they had players such as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta at the peak of their powers. Does that result and achievement get even more impressive as the years go on?

“I’ll leave it to others to comment on whether it is more impressive as time goes on but, what I will say is that you do not fully appreciate the magnitude of it all at the time.

“We knew going into the game that it was going to be incredibly difficult because Barcelona had world class footballers in every position that had won all that there was to win the game.

“However, I went to watch them face Deportivo in the build-up to the game as I wanted to see them play live in addition to accessing the reports on them from our staff.

“The team that they had in 2011 under Pep Guardiola is the best club team that I have ever seen in my lifetime and, although we were facing them two seasons on from that, they were still a formidable team.

“On the night, we knew that as a team that we would need to work incredibly hard from start to finish and rely on Fraser Forster to be adept whenever he was called upon which he was.

“We knew that we would not have too many chances given how Barcelona dominated possession as a team but we took our opportunities through Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt when they presented themselves to go on and win the game 2-1.

“It was the perfect storm for us that night. We handled the pressure and the intensity of the game brilliantly.

“Eleven years on, people still talk about the game and their memories of it fondly which is always nice to see and hear.”

You left Celtic as manager for the first time in 2014 and went on to manage Bolton Wanderers who turned out to be in a difficult position financially. Was that move a case of the right club at the wrong time?

“I think that is a fair way to put it because Bolton were bottom of the Championship when I arrived.

“I took a bit of a break after leaving Celtic because after four years at the club, I needed a rest and to spend more time with my family.

“However, the club had just been relegated from the Premier League and needed to rebuild and it felt like a good opportunity for me to be able to build something and take the club forward.

“Our initial aim was to keep the club up which we did comfortably.

“Ideally, the next season is when I would have the opportunity to build my own team and look to progress the club forward to challenging for a return to the top flight.

“Unfortunately, the bottom fell out of the club financially which I was not made aware of prior to joining the club so the job became very difficult as we had little stability across the club as a result of the financial circumstances.

“Ultimately, it was a learning experience for me as a manager. We all have good experiences and bad experiences in our careers but the main thing is to learn from them.

“I learned a lot from my time working in such challenging circumstances but I loved my time at Bolton in the sense that the fans were great and everyone at the club was great too.

“It was just the financial side of things which made the job extremely difficult.”

You returned to Scottish Football as manager of Hibernian in 2016. The club were in the Scottish Championship and your task was to return them to the top flight and establish them back there again. What was that experience like for you?

“Managing Hibs was one of the happiest times in my managerial career to date.

“I absolutely loved my time at the club and I enjoyed the challenge of taking the team back into the top flight.

“Hibs have won the Scottish Cup the season before I arrived but missed out on promotion in the same season so I arrived at a club that was on a high with a feel-good factor throughout the club yet a drive to go again and achieve promotion.

“In the first few training sessions, I could see that we had a good crop of players that just needed a few additions to go on and achieve promotion.

“We accomplished the aim of winning the Championship title at the first time of asking with an eleven point margin over our nearest competitors and we built the squad so that they could prosper upon our return to the Scottish Premiership.

“We tweaked a few things here and there but players like John McGinn, Dylan McGeoch and Paul Hanlon showed their quality in the top flight just as they had in the second tier.

“We added Scott Allan to the group who added an extra dimension to our midfield and recruited two strikers in Florian Kamberi and Jamie MacLaren who added extra intensity and depth to our forward line.

“The first season back in the Premiership was amazing. We finished 4th in the league and were close to reaching the 70 points mark too as we finished the season on 67 points which was pleasing.

“We got the club into Europe and reached a Scottish Cup semi-final along the way.

“We also went to Ibrox and won twice, we beat Celtic and made Easter Road a fortress that opposition teams did not enjoy coming to.

“The fans were bouncing, backing the team to the hilt every single week and we played a brand of football that was open and exciting.

“I look back on that time incredibly fondly.”

Neil Lennon Celtic Barcelona Glasgow

Neil Lennon during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between Celtic and FC Barcelona at Celtic Park Stadium on October 1, 2013 in Glasgow, Scotland.

You returned to Celtic for a second spell as manager in 2019 following the departure of Brendan Rodgers to Leicester. You took over at short notice ahead of an away game at Tynecastle. What was your reaction when the call from Celtic came?

“I was aware that it was a difficult situation for the club but I did not hesitate when the call came in.

“I knew that Celtic needed someone in quickly to make sure that they continued their strong first half of the season.

“I knew the club and some of the players there too so it was an exciting prospect too.

“The club was off the back of winning back-to-back trebles so whilst it was a chaotic time given the circumstances of the manager leaving and me arriving, there was a job to be done.

“We went on to win a third treble in a row for the club which was a great experience and a great privilege.”

You won another treble as Celtic manager and in doing so you became the only person in Celtic history to win a treble as a player and as a manager. How proud are you of that achievement?

“That achievement is very personal to me and it means so much.

“I am the only person in Scottish football history to have done it which is remarkable given that the game has been around for over 150 years.

“It is never easy to win a treble whether you are a player or a manager so to have done it on both sides of the fence is a wonderful feeling.

“It is a record that can never be broken but I am sure that it will be equalled one day.”

You won Celtic a 9th league title in a row while in your second spell before leaving as manager during the 20/21 season which was dominated by COVID-19 protocols and no fans in stadiums. How do you reflect on that final season at the club and how difficult was it for you and the players to perform without fans in the ground?

“Having no fans at the stadium had a huge impact on many teams including us.

“Before the lockdown came, we were rampant as a team. Winning games, playing good football and thirteen points clear in the league.

“We had already won the League Cup and were in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.

“Then, lockdown came and there was no football for three months. Players returned home to their home countries and life was not the same.

“Whether you agree with it or not, football returned with strict protocols and empty stadiums so that the game could continue.

“It had to in order to support the clubs but it was not normal.

“We suffered as a club as much as anybody for the lack of fans because you always know at Celtic that the fans will drive you on.

“That being said, we have to take responsibility for the season that was there and there were a number of things outwith our control that did not help.

“It was surreal at times and it was sore to take what was going on but so much was outwith our control.

“At Celtic, we suffered without fans and if you look across Europe, at the same time many other clubs suffered too.

“You then see the outcome of things after crowds came back with Celtic winning titles and trophies again under Ange Postecoglou.”

You returned to management in Cyprus after leaving Celtic at AC Omonia. You led the club to their first Cypriot Cup success in ten years and took them into the Europa League group stage. What are your main memories from managing abroad for the first time?

“I really enjoyed the challenge of managing in a new country and in a new environment.

“I enjoyed the football climate in Cyprus too.

“We had great success at the club by winning the Cypriot Cup against Ethnikos in the final.

“That enabled us to reach the Europa League qualifiers where we faced a strong side in K.A.A. Gent from Belgium.

“We dominated them over both legs with an aggregate victory of 4-0 to reach the group stage of the Europa League which was an incredible achievement for us.

“Then, once we got there, we were handed a group with teams of Champions League quality with Manchester United and Real Sociedad in our group.

“That was another amazing experience for the players and for the staff. It was a great feeling to lead a team out at Old Trafford for the first time.

“We pushed Real Sociedad away in Spain and narrowly lost 2-1.

“It was another good learning curve in my career and I enjoyed my time at Omonia.”

Finally, Neil, you have been working in the media in recent months. How much are you enjoying that side of the game and, crucially,  do you want to return to management again in the near future?

“Ideally, I want to return to management sooner rather than later because I am only 52 and I believe that my best years in management are still in front of me.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed working in the media and I am always grateful for the work but my burning ambition is to return to management again and be back in the touchline.”


  • comment-avatar

    Neil has had a remarkable footballing journey
    Early serious injury while at Man City forced him to rebuild both his body and 
    Apart from the financial woes not of his making at Bolton he has tasted success throughout his management  career.
    Still a young man he has plenty to offer whichever club or country he arrives at next.