Martin O’Neill’s side, defined by its exceptional run to the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville, was a team full of captains: Lennon, Lambert, Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton, John Hartson, Johan Mjallby: they had no shortage of natural leaders.
It’s early days to make a definitive judgment call on this point, but so far the two midfielders have shown the most promise when it comes to emulating O’Neill and becoming successful managers themselves.
If there is any competition between the two pals these days, it’s to show who is O’Neill’s most promising protege. Lennon could be the first of “the Seville team” to win a title as Celtic manager. Lambert has beaten him to it when it comes to winning a championship having delivered League One for Norwich City a year ago. This week, he achieved something far more lucrative by steering the club to the Barclays Premier League.
Lambert is such a hot property he didn’t have time to reply when Lennon texted him with congratulations. “I’ve not spoken to him yet,” said Lennon. “I’m sure he’s still coming down from cloud nine. I sent him a text last night but I’m sure he’d have got thousands. He should enjoy the moment because its very rare that you get to enjoy moments like this. But then he’ll start worrying about the Premier League.
“He’s worked a miracle on limited resources. What he’s achieved since taking over is nothing short of remarkable. He’s done it the hard way. He didn’t have a great time at Livingston. But he went and did his apprenticeship, as it were, at Wycombe then Colchester. He had a great career as a player but, as a manager, to get out of that Championship is something that some managers don’t do in their lifetime. He must be feeling pretty good about himself today.”
At least Lennon still looks like Lennon. With the tracksuit trousers tucked inside his socks, the excited mannerisms on the touchline, and the spectacles, Lambert seems to be physically transforming into their former manager. “I’m not sure if he’s done that by design but it just shows the influence Martin has had on a lot of us, not just Paul and me,” said Lennon, smiling. “There’s no doubt the majority of the way he approaches football and the ideas he uses will have come from Martin. I’m sure if other guys from that Seville team decide to go into management then Martin will be a template for us all.”
So far Lennon has had no team awards to celebrate, only individual ones. Emilio Izaguirre has scooped the two player of the year prizes announced so far: the PFA Scotland award and last night a separate one from league sponsors Clydesdale Bank. It is a measure of Biram Kayal’s impact this season that he could prevent the Honduran from winning the club’s own player of the year award.
“I thought Izaguirre’s deserved the awards he’s had,” said Lennon. “Since his opening day at Fir Park he’s not looked back. He’s been a breath of fresh air, brought an extra dimension to the team and defended brilliantly. He’s played that left-hand side with flair, panache and quality. He’s a very humble and hungry boy.
“You can have players from that side of the world who come in and live it up without putting the effort in. We’re lucky in terms of the temperament of the player. He’s got a deep faith in his religion which keeps him on an even keel in his private life. He’s a family man but he comes in every day with a smile on his face and a hunger to get better. As the season has gone on, he’s got better.
“I think he’s happy here, and so is Kayal. They see next season as another stage in their development. It’s great credit to our scouts, they’ve been terrific finds. Kayal has a real hunger about him. We’d watched Gary Hooper as well and I suppose it’s the manager’s final decision. I’m not taking all the credit but you have to go with your gut instinct. As soon as I saw Kayal it was a no-brainer, he was the exact type of player I wanted. It’s difficult to check on their temperament and how they’ll settle but Kayal is a football monster. He just wants to play the game and win.”
If he’s on a winning team tonight Kayal will be top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, two points clear of Rangers with only three matches remaining. In the unreal, low-key context of a 6pm kick-off against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Highlands, Celtic will play a match of enormous significance in their season.
“It’s about attitude,” said Lennon. “The kick-off time won’t affect the players’ approach to the game at all. We also don’t want to use that as an excuse. It will be very difficult, Inverness is never easy at any stage of the season. Terry [Butcher] will have his team very motivated, as he always does against the Old Firm.
“For us, the premise is to win the game. If it means we go top, fine, but we need win the game. Psychologically, I suppose it will give everyone a lift to go top of the league but regardless of that we have to win. Hunger is the key thing in any championship-winning team. You have to have the hunger and desire to take on all challenges. You have to adapt to different formations, and styles, and overcome them. The top teams are up there because they do that consistently well.”
Inverness have been a sticky opponent for Celtic, but not recently. It’s eight meetings and three-and-a-half years since Celtic lost to them. If the Highlanders take any points tonight it could be a seismic result.