N EIL LENNON's phone has barely stopped ringing and beeping with text messages since Wednesday night.
Guiding his team safely through to the last 16 of the Champions League has led to the Celtic manager being inundated with adulation, kind words pouring in from friends, foes and other assorted well-wishers. Even knights of the realm have been in touch. Sir Alex Ferguson has surely got plenty on his plate trying to lead Manchester United to domestic and European glories but the Scot still found time to send a message to Lennon offering his congratulations on joining United in the knock-out phase of the competition, as well as joking about the prospect of the two clubs being paired together when the draw is made on December 20.
This was surprising news on two fronts. Firstly, it was hard to imagine someone as old school as Sir Alex having the patience to fiddle around with text messages. And, secondly, it was interesting to hear of this blossoming friendship between the venerable, septuagenarian manager and someone who can still be considered a relative newcomer to the profession. That they have apparently become close in recent months says a lot about Lennon's desire to learn from the coaching greats, as well as the increasingly high esteem with which he is now held by his fellow managers. Ferguson, famously, likes to enjoy a bottle of red wine with his opposition number after a match and Lennon has already been primed to make it a good one if fate brings the two men together next spring.
"People are asking me [who he wants in the last 16] and I have no favourite," said Lennon. "I suppose in terms of glamour it would be Manchester United but I would like to avoid them if I could. I'd have to go up against Sir Alex and he's been very good during the campaign in terms of titbits and advice. He was texting me the other day saying, 'Congratulations. Great achievement. I thought you'd do it.' I said, 'I hope we don't draw you' and he replied, 'Well, if you do, make sure there's a good bottle of red wine.'
"Borussia Dortmund would be another [to avoid]. They've been very impressive. To come out of that group was very impressive, as was the way they did it. As for the rest, they're all good sides. But it doesn't really matter. Two months down the line I don't know where we'll be form-wise, I don't know where we'll be personnel-wise and the other clubs don't know where they'll be either. Over two games anything can happen so it's brilliant and very exciting."
This has not been a vintage year for Scottish football but Celtic's success has helped restore a modicum of respectability. The rest of the world does not take a huge interest in our affairs but when they've peeked in recently it's been to shake their head at the shambles of Rangers' demise and eventual re-birth in the third division. Celtic reaching the knock-out phase of the Champions League – and prospering where Manchester City and Chelsea have failed – has helped paint a brighter picture.
"I do feel that there are people genuinely pleased within the game that we have succeeded," added Lennon. "There are people grudgingly looking at it as well, but that's only natural. But for the image of the game it's very good. It makes the league look not as shabby as people think it is. I've been banging the drum for the SPL for quite a while. Now England's taking a battering because of teams that haven't qualified – Man City haven't qualified and they've spent a lot of money."
The last 16 of the Champions League is filled again with familiar, established clubs. Others, like Malaga and Paris Saint-Germain, have prospered after being heavily bankrolled by Middle Eastern money. For Celtic to join them on a relatively meagre budget is a sign then that, occasionally, it is not just the wealthiest clubs that prevail.
"If you have money you can buy anyone you want, but sometimes pride is worth more than money," said Georgios Samaras, the Celtic forward. "You can't buy pride. Celtic have this big history for 125 years and the one thing they've always had is their pride. Sometimes that gives you extra motivation to go and win games. You can buy a very good player for a lot of money but you need more than that. Sometime it's about what's going on in the dressing room and the bond between the players, the coaching staff and the other people working around you."
Domestic matters have barely been mentioned in the afterglow of their Champions League success but Kilmarnock at lunchtime will bring Celtic back to earth. "Everyone knew that it was a very tough period for us. For four months we had weekend then midweek games. Now we have more time to focus on the SPL and start winning games. We have to prove we are the best team and try to open the gap on the others."