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Lennon fires up the 'Rocket Man'

WHEN the phone rang in Neil Lennon's house it was his partner, Irene, who answered.

Neil Lennon has drawn praise from all quarters in the days since the 2-1 win over Barcelona, including, unexpectedly from  Sir Elton John, who phoned the Celtic manager at his home this week. Picture: Colin Mearns
Neil Lennon has drawn praise from all quarters in the days since the 2-1 win over Barcelona, including, unexpectedly from Sir Elton John, who phoned the Celtic manager at his home this week. Picture: Colin Mearns

This has been no ordinary week for the manager of Celtic and this was no ordinary call.

Irene shouted: "Neil, it's Elton John on the line." He waited for a punchline . . . and nothing came. She wasn't teasing him. Lennon has had to put up with a few rockets over his years in Glasgow but this was different: the Rocket Man himself

Elton had dedicated a song to Lennon when he played a gig at Falkirk Stadium last year, but until this week, and Celtic's stunning Champions League victory over Barcelona, they had never spoken.

"He was on his way to Australia on tour and he said he felt compelled to call me," Lennon explained in one of his more unusual press conference tangents yesterday.

"He said, 'I wanted to call you for a while, particularly when you were going through all the off-the-field stuff last year'. He said he'd had that in his own life and he knew how difficult and traumatic it can be. We touched on Rod Stewart crying at the end of the [Barcelona] game. He said he did that himself at the end of the 1984 FA Cup final, when he was chairman of Watford, and he said that's just the way football envelops you at times.

"He didn't have to call. It was just a brilliant gesture and something that I will remember for a long time.

"It just shows you how much the Barcelona result caught people's attention and gripped their imagination. But it is magic, it is something the players will remember for the rest of their lives, no doubt about that. I said to them before the game, 'This is your moment, don't let it go, don't be gallant losers, because we have had that tag far too often'."

Praise and recognition has simply poured down on Celtic and Lennon since Wednesday night, much of it about the incredible noise, colour and spectacle generated once again by a Parkhead capacity crowd. The manager has lapped it up, but wants appreciation for his players, too.

"What I want is not just for people to talk about the great atmosphere, I want them to talk about the team. I think we've got that: people are talking about the players and rightly so. Now they've got to come back down to earth. We haven't achieved anything yet apart from the seven points which could be very, very precious to us. All four teams can still qualify from the group, so we need to be judged on the six games and not just the four."

Barcelona are on nine points, Celtic seven, Benfica four and Spartak Moscow three. If Celtic get a score draw at Benfica and Barcelona defeat Spartak on November 20 Lennon will have taken his team into the last 16. The final group game is at home to Spartak on December 5.

"We have two more really stiff challenges ahead of us. Benfica away is almost as difficult as going to the Nou Camp, and Spartak at home will be a great occasion again.

"We are still a work in progress. Despite beating Barcelona we are still a young team and a young management. We are still liable to have our moments of naivety and that could show up in the next two games. I'm well aware of that."

All this Europe-wide attention can have its disadvantages. The contributions of Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster, and Lennon himself, were liable to have attracted predatory eyes. Did Lennon suspect that richer clubs would now be watching his players? "I have no doubt about that. Some of them have elevated themselves.

"I don't want to single people out, but the goalkeeper had two amazing performances on the back of some other great performances. Wanyama, [Adam] Matthews, [Joe] Ledley. Kelvin Wilson quietly goes about his business unnoticed, but he's such an important performer for the team."

The club is also in talks with Tony Watt, the 18-year-old who scored what proved to be the winner, about an improved contract.

"I looked at Wanyama the other night and he did not look out of place on that pitch," continued Lennon. "He showed another aspect to his game. He had a change of pace that we had not really seen before, really getting forward. We all know he is technically gifted and a powerhouse, but there was more to his game against Barca. I have no doubts about Fraser Forster either. I think, right now, he is pushing Joe Hart. Fraser has the potential to be anything he wants to be."

What of Lennon himself: could he achieve his own managerial goals at Celtic?

"I don't think I could envisage getting an occasion like Wednesday anywhere else. You don't know where your career will take you in this job. Yes, it's great at the moment, but a year ago it was not so great and in a few years' time I don't know where I will be, whether I am here or not. I just take it as it comes and like [major shareholder] Dermot Desmond says, I am a 'work in progress'. I keep striving to get better and make the team better. I like defying the odds. I like listening to other people outside the game voicing their opinions and I like proving them wrong."

One last point on Barcelona: had they been magnanimous in defeat?

"I had a brief chat with Cesc Fabregas, who was really good, and I was lucky enough to bump into Lionel Messi as well," said Lennon. "They are a class act from top to bottom and that's the way I want our club to be as well: humble in victory and gracious in defeat."

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