His abrasive temperament is still seen by some as an accident waiting to happen. Each has his own opinion on the necessary public image and decorum for a manager: suit or tracksuit? Hairdryer or physiologist? Suffice to say that at the Old Firm, you need a character of steel, and that outfit better be of armour.
Anyone who hasn't lived in the white-hot kitchen should not readily criticise Lennon, especially after all he has been through.
My appreciation of Lennon changed this season watching his tactical versatility in the Champions League games, particularly when he commented last December on the tie with Juventus. "If we are going to prevail we have to stop Pirlo playing," Lennon said. No tub-thumping, no rhetoric about the fans being the extra man. No, just the cold analysis from someone who knows where the true values in football lie. Few individuals are the talent, most are support staff. You need to make your talent play, and stop theirs. Football is a simple game really.
Lennon continues to surprise, clearly as a more cultured student of the game than is apparent at surface level. But he is not the first to express the binary equation; if you give Pirlo space, you lose the game, any game. That sentiment was colourfully expressed in the Italian media for the umpteenth time last Sunday morning, after the midfielder's masterclass against Fiorentina, whose coach, Vincenzo Montella, chose not to man mark Pirlo. "We will create a pitch wide cage for him, with no one player assigned to mark". Safe to say, that was an error.
Pirlo is the midfielder of his generation – even Xavi doesn't have the same range of passes – and one of the greatest of all-time in terms of raw ability, and also as an innovator. Born as a No.10, he personally transformed the role of the deep-lying playmaker, collecting along the way a World Cup, and assorted Champions Leagues and domestic titles. Don't ask this guy to show you his medals if you are in a rush.
Indeed, despite all his glory at Milan and Chelsea, the greatest managerial achievement of Carlo Ancelotti was to take a skinny underperforming Pirlo at Internazionale and transform him into the playmaker we now know. "I have Zico in front of the defence," Ancelotti said. A decade of excellence ensued.
Pirlo's arrival at Juventus 18 months ago on a free transfer was seen as a late Indian summer for a declining maestro. And he instantly provided the catalyst for Antonio Conte's workman-like and aggressive team to win their first title in years. He is their muse, their architect. As Lennon noted: "People say he doesn't have the legs anymore, but he does – he's a very good athlete. He might play at a different pace to everyone else but he's so good he can afford to do that."
Just ask England or Germany, who were dissected by Pirlo in the European Championships last summer. And who can forget the penalty in the quarter-final against England, dinking the ball over Joe Hart when Italy were already behind in the shoot-out? Only those utterly certain of their position in the pantheon of history could take a risk like that. And yet he, like many Italian footballers, is vastly underrated, especially in the UK.
"Nothing more than a prima donna" is the cry from the pie and bovril crowd, sated adequately by the fare on offer in the likes of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. As long as they are happy I guess. It is a statement, however, which in its ignorance is comically accurate, as the "first lady" will, without exception, possess outstanding ability, with the label awarded by popular consensus to those whose achievements place them in a category above all others. Andrea Pirlo is a Prima Donna, his elegance worthy of Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi.
I have watched him for 15 years. The 60-yard pass into an espresso cup, the change of direction, the feints, the killer pass; the infinite grace. He transcends club allegiance.
Notwithstanding wearing the colours of an utterly despised Juventus, he is an appointment to view for all Italian fans, creating a sort of ecumenical appreciation of the artist himself. At the stadium, or in front of the TV, comments by now are few, gasps are no more. What more can usefully be added after all these years? Instead, you look at your friends, your son, and a mere nod or knowing smile suffices. It's Pirlo – we are all lucky to be in this period. It sounds melodramatic, but this is how it is: universal veneration.
So tonight, one would expect the Lennon-led Celtic to deploy an extra midfielder to "impose his physical presence" in the vicinity of Pirlo, or ask the same of a deep lying forward. Yet although many have tried, few succeed. I don't think Pirlo will have a pleasant evening in Glasgow with 60,000 screaming from the stands and Scott Brown at his heels. As a life-long Celtic fan, that is a bittersweet observation. It undoubtedly represents my team's best chance to compete in the tie, but it would deprive football of one of the remaining appearances of an aging Nureyev still in his pomp. But on balance, here's hoping for an off night.
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