The Hoops' manager has been through significant ups and downs since taking over at Parkhead but progression to the Champions League knock-out stages ranks as his finest hour
By Chris Myson
It was only as the clock ticked into stoppage-time that Celtic supporters finally began to believe their side had done enough to reach the Champions League knock-out stages.
With Spartak Moscow down to 10 men, the Hoops 2-1 up and good news filtering through from Benfica’s match in Barcelona, the home supporters in Glasgow finally started to celebrate.
“There’s only one Neil Lennon” was the deafening chant they opted to mark the final seconds with, a fitting tribute to their young manager, who has staunchly defended the club through thick and thin in a tumultuous three years in charge.
For this was undoubtedly Lennon’s finest night as Celtic manager. Despite having already won the Scottish Premier League, the Scottish Cup, enjoyed victories over Rangers and beaten the mighty Barcelona, Wednesday night is the one he will remember most fondly.
It was a classic evening of European football at Celtic Park. As ever, the deafening atmosphere from the magnificent home support matched an occasion which had the added drama of relying on a result from elsewhere.
|CELTIC WIN ON THRILLING NIGHT
|Read our match report as Celtic battle to a 2-1 victory over Spartak Moscow, which proves to be enough to secure a place in the last 16|
After the break a victory did look more likely, but it took a controversial 81st minute penalty, converted by Kris Commons, to seal progression. A nervous Lennon could not even bring himself to watch it from the sidelines.
But despite the tense and controversial nature of the win, few will begrudge Lennon his moment of triumph after a remarkable campaign and a thrilling night of drama.
He has had a harsh induction to management by being thrown into the lions’ den of leading one of the Old Firm clubs and coping with the media pressure and personal challenges that come with filling such a job in a divided city.
Over his three years in charge Lennon has continued to grow into the role. He is now coping better under pressure, clashing less with the press and referees yet still keeping the fiery nature and will to succeed that makes him the winning character he is.
Just two weeks ago, Lennon was talking about his future at the club after being involved in a bust-up with a fan after an SPL defeat but those domestic struggles become insignificant in comparison with their journey to the last 16.
After the match, the manager thanked two of his former bosses, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan, for their part in teaching him what he knows about game. After the club’s achievements this season though, working with much less resources than his predecessors enjoyed, Lennon has cemented his own iconic status at the club he also served so well as a player.
Few expected him to guide Celtic through a group that included not just Barca, but Benfica, who are established competitors at the top level and reached the quarter-finals last year and the financially-backed Spartak side who proved in the final match that they have more to offer than had been on show previously.
This is a tremendous success Lennon has built himself. He and his backroom staff have shown some impressive acumen in the transfer market. The cornerstones of the current team’s success, Fraser Forster, Charlie Mulgrew, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper all came in on his watch at a relatively low cost.
From where the club were in Europe last season, winning just one game in a Europa League group they only got into via default after the team they had already lost to in the play-offs, FC Sion, were disqualified, is remarkable.
Lennon has taken the club from dark days on the continent. Some of his first games in permanent charge were comprehensive defeats to Braga and Utrecht that knocked the club out of both European competitions before the end of August.
Now, he has taken Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in five years and the future looks bright with a young squad and significantly increased revenues now coming the club's way.
After all his struggles as a manager on and off the pitch, everything is starting to fall into place for Lennon at the club he loves and you definitely get the sense that he is far from finished yet.