NEIL Lennon had fully intended to occupy one of the comfortable seats at the ceremony for the Champions League last-16 draw in Switzerland yesterday but, unlikely as it may initially sound, there was a more pressing engagement in his diary.
His son Gallagher turned seven this week and if Lennon had flown out to Uefa's offices in Nyon he would have missed his wee fella's big day. So he spent his time with his boy, refereed a kids' match he played in, and was at Lennoxtown yesterday morning to watch the draw in the Celtic players' canteen.
Family birthdays are memories worth keeping. Other recollections would be happily discarded, if that was possible.
The first words put to Lennon at his main press conference after the draw yesterday were, "so . . . Nicola Amoruso". For many, that name would have long disappeared into insignificance, but not for Lennon, or many others around Celtic. Amoruso, now retired, was an unremarkable striker who shot – or fell – to prominence in Scotland by diving to "win" a penalty when he was challenged by Joos Valgaeren during Celtic's last visit to Turin in September, 2001. Lennon was in the team which was on course for a commendable 2-2 draw until Juventus converted that penalty for a late winner.
Celtic recovered to win each of their three home games in that season's group campaign, including an incredible 4-3 victory in the return game against Juventus. But they finished third, when a point in that opening game would have been enough to take them through with an eventual 10.
"They were two titanic games against Juventus," said Lennon. "I thought we played really well in the second half in Turin and, when we got it back to 2-2, everyone thought the least we would get was a point. Obviously, the decision that went against us cost us the game and set the tone for a long, long time when it came to away performances."
Whatever damage that may have done to Celtic in the long term – their record in European away games remained pitiful until this season – their anger was raw and immediate in Turin. Amoruso and German referee Helmut Krug felt the wrath of Celtic's manager at the time, Martin O'Neill, who was sent to the stand before full-time. "To be fair, you couldn't blame him, because there was no contact between Joos and Amoruso," said Lennon, reeling off the detail as if it had happened yesterday. "Amoruso got the penalty and we all felt incensed, all felt a sense of injustice. If a decision like that had gone against me, as a manager, I would have been just incensed.
"Juventus had Pavel Nedved, Edgar Davids, David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero, Marcelo Salas, Gianluigi Buffon. It was a team littered with world-class stars. We had matched them for 89 or 90 minutes, so he [O'Neill] had every right to feel aggrieved. We could all see it wasn't a penalty.
"The 4-3 game here is probably one of the highlights of my career. Juventus, all in black that night, in front of a packed house, Lubo Moravcik at his best, Didier Agathe at his best, Henrik [Larsson] and Chris [Sutton] playing so well. They were all the ingredients for one of those epic nights. David Trezeguet came on and scored two beauties, Alessandro Del Piero scored with a free-kick. So you had everything in the game that you could want. I'm hoping for more of the same from these two ties."
Some old resentments will bubble around the ties on February 12 and March 6, but in truth, what happened 11 years ago will have no bearing on this last-16 tie. Buffon apart, none of the participating players were involved and when Celtic go to Turin they will not even be in the same stadium. The oversized, unpopular Stade delle Alpi was vacated by Juventus a year ago as the club known as "The Old Lady" moved into the purpose-built Juventus Stadium, a compact, noisy venue holding 41,000. They have been almost unbeatable in it so far.
The general reaction to yesterday's draw was that it could have been worse for Celtic, largely because of the impression that Italian football is not what it used to be. They had not been thrown in against Bayern Munich, Manchester United or Borussia Dortmund, although Malaga or Schalke 04 might have seemed more encouraging. With greater analysis of Juventus' strength, though, came a sobering of the mood. Celtic's home win over Barcelona entitled them to harbour a fighting chance against anyone, yet Juventus are quietly formidable. They are seven points clear in Serie A and were unbeaten in their six Champions League group games, taking four points against both Shakhtar Donetsk (who qualified with them) and Chelsea. Their 3-0 defeat of the reigning European champions in Turin last month was notable for many reasons, not least that during the 90 minutes they had 25 attempts on goal.
"I think this Juventus team are formidable," said Lennon. "Italian teams are always tough cookies and this team are consistently excellent at the minute. They are well clear at the top of Serie A, they won the league comfortably last year, they topped a group with Chelsea and Shakhtar and they beat Chelsea 3-0. There's not many teams do that. So they are a formidable side, they have a lot of flair with people like Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Pirlo and others. The majority of that Italian team that got to the final of Euro 2012 was made up of Juventus players.
"Italian football has been through a transitional phase but it's coming through the other side. There are cycles and this seems to be Juventus' time. AC Milan are down a bit and Inter have been inconsistent since winning the Champions League, so Juventus look like top dogs at the moment. They have probably been out of the picture for a few years but I think this current team fancies bringing the glory days back again. I have a soft spot for Juventus because when I was growing up they were the Italian team of that era, the late 1970s and early '80s. They had Michel Platini, Roberto Bettega, Zbigniew Boniek and people like that. They were fantastic to watch."
The Juventus team of 2001 could be, too, but that is now how Lennon and others at Celtic remember them. Earlier this year the man who was their manager at the time of those games, Marcello Lippi, was at Hampden to give a coaching seminar. Lennon was encouraged to ask a question from the floor. "So I said: 'Okay, 11 years ago, over in Turin: was it a penalty?' Lippi said: 'Ah, some decisions you get, some decisions you don't'."
Yesterday, Lennon smiled at Lippi's nonchalance. "Great . . . it ******* destroyed us for 11 years!"