NEIL Lennon has admitted the chance of winning 10 consecutive league titles could keep him at Celtic for several more years.
The manager was linked with Norwich City again this week and is the subject of frequent speculation about when he might choose to leave Scottish football for England. He spoke of the ambitions he still has for Celtic yesterday, but also of the objectives he could realise only by leaving to manage elsewhere.
A UK-wide audience will have the chance to watch Lennon discussing his future in an interview on Sky Sports' Soccer AM programme this morning, in which he told them his ideal scenario is him being manager of Celtic with the club resident in the English Premier League. His interest in managing a top-flight club south of the border is an open secret, but Lennon said yesterday: "Sometimes it can be a distraction but it will take a lot for me to leave the job here.
"It's a huge club. But we all have ambitions to go on. How many titles can you win? Is it six, seven, eight, nine, ten? The big carrot is the Champions League. But there are other challenges and ambitions out there that eventually you want to fulfil if you can.
"But there's no guarantee of that. People are talking as if I can just walk out of Celtic and get a job in England. I think it has become increasingly difficult with new owners who have their own ideas. I'm really proud of what we've done here. I try not to think of my stock going up and down, but it's inevitable that you can't stop the way people perceive you.
"The dream scenario would be to go to the English Premier League with Celtic. Do I think it will happen? I hope so. That's not being disrespectful to the Scottish game, I'd just like to see it happen." He was asked if it would matter to him if Rangers also enjoyed the financial advantages of playing south of the border? "Not at all. I'm not that selfish!"
Lennon and Celtic are close to completing the formality of winning their third consecutive title together. They face Hearts at Tynecastle in today's lunchtime kick-off, the team isolated at the top playing the one adrift at the bottom. Two-and-a-half months ago Celtic won 7-0 at the same ground in the Scottish Cup. That performance was their most compelling domestic display of the season.
"If we can play anywhere near the standard we set last time I'll be delighted," said Lennon. "The first 45 minutes was the best football I've seen from a team I've managed in my time here."
The result was a humiliation for his opposite number, Gary Locke, and Lennon admitted he had felt sympathy for him. "You always do. Any time you give a team a hammering you have certain sympathies for the guy in the other dugout, but you're there to do a job. Coming away after that game I was waxing lyrical about the way we played. I was so pleased.
"If Hearts go down it will be a loss to the top flight. They are one of the bigger clubs in the country and Gary has had it really tough this season. We all think we are under pressure and in tough jobs but Gary has had the hardest job of any of us this season, to deal with the stuff he's had to put up with. I admire the way he's dealt with it. He loves the club and his enthusiasm for the job is unrelenting. He's done very well to keep his dignity in trying."
Charlie Mulgrew is available again but Emilio Izaguirre is out injured. The match will assume additional significance if Celtic navigate the first 30 minutes without conceding a goal, because that will ease goalkeeper Fraser Forster past the 43-year-old record for consecutive minutes of Scottish league football without conceding a goal. Aberdeen's Bobby Clark set the record at 1155 unbeaten minutes and Forster, after 12 consecutive clean sheets, can beat that today. "I think goalkeepers and back fours pride themselves on clean sheets but to be as consistent as that for a concerted period of time takes some doing," said Lennon. "It'd be a great landmark. Clean sheets are very difficult things to achieve."
Forster will become synonymous with the record if it is broken today but Efe Ambrose, Virgil van Dijk, Adam Matthews, Mikael Lustig and Darnell Fisher have all played their parts in defending the Celtic goal over the past dozen league games. According to one English broadsheet newspaper yesterday the excellent van Dijk has interested both Manchester United and Manchester City.
"I don't know how much truth there is in that but it wouldn't surprise me," said Lennon. "I think he's one of the best centre-halves we've seen up here in quite a while."