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Three titles? It ought to be four, says Neil Lennon

NEIL Lennon has a seat reserved among exalted company.

Neil Lennon shows his frustration during the defeat at Inverness that cost Celtic the 2010-11 title Photograph: SNS
Neil Lennon shows his frustration during the defeat at Inverness that cost Celtic the 2010-11 title Photograph: SNS

At some point in the next seven days, barring unforeseen disasters, the Northern Irishman will join Willie Maley, Jock Stein and Gordon Strachan in a veritable Parkhead pantheon: this elite group of Celtic managers have won three top-flight league titles in a row.

A fourth or more may follow, but in Lennon's view at least, he is behind schedule. The 42-year-old revealed last night that his darkest moments remain haunted by the 3-2 defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in May 2011 which undid Celtic's previous good work and ultimately led to Walter Smith's Rangers pipping them to the 2010-11 SPL championship on the final day. Lennon is not answerable for what has befallen the Ibrox club since then, but winning that title championship would certainly have undercut one of the most persistent criticisms of him.

"Looking back, it should be four," Lennon said. "That first season we went up to Inverness in midweek and lost, having already done the majority of the donkey work. We drew at Ibrox, but ended as runners-up when if we'd kept our focus and consistency we'd have won the league.

"Regardless of what people may say about Rangers not having been here for the last two seasons, in the two before that we picked up 92 and 93 points so we've been very consistent.

"You don't dwell for too long on missing out, but sometimes you look back on it and think 'we could have silenced the critics who say we're only winning the league because Rangers aren't in it'. Well, we won one when they were and narrowly lost out in the other one against the man who was probably Rangers' best-ever manager."

Until the crowning moment arrives, either after Wednesday night's game against Partick Thistle at Firhill or at home to Ross County on Saturday, the Northern Irishman is only guessing about how this success will feel compared to others. Defeat to Morton and Aberdeen in the cups, and a Champions League campaign which failed to live up to last season's heights, makes it seem rather underwhelming, but in terms of points on the board the 2013-14 campaign is already more rewarding than last season.

"You always try to imagine how you're going to feel when you win the title, but I've discovered that you can't really predict it," Lennon. "It's always a very special moment and I can sense that feeling of anticipation."

The calendar of Celtic's season has altered; these days the real celebrations are centred on qualification for the Champions League. Perhaps more impressive than winning three straight league titles is that the Parkhead side could this summer become the first Scottish club to battle their way into the group stage - as opposed to automatically going in as title-winners - for three successive years.

The circumstances this summer are particularly challenging, of course. The team's first qualifier falls just two or three days after the final of the World Cup final, a tournament at which a number of their players are likely to feature, and, due to the Commonwealth Games, Celtic will play home legs at Murrayfield. There is also the recurring worry of some of their top players being the subject of transfer bids, and the subsequent need to settle in replacements.

"It's taken [this season's] new boys some time to bed in," Lennon added. "But I've been encouraged by what I've seen in the second half of the season, particularly from Nir Biton and Stefan Johansen, and Virgil van Dijk has been outstanding for most of the campaign. There's a lot more to come from Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde, but the core of the squad - the likes of Scott Brown, Mikael Lustig, Kris Commons and Charlie Mulgrew - have been fantastic. I keep forgetting about Leigh Griffiths, but he's certainly made us a better team."

One man not mentioned by Lennon is Emilio Izaguirre, though that must surely only be an oversight given the consistency he has shown all season. The left-back will be at the World Cup with Honduras this summer and will report straight back to Celtic, although he is likely to be given some downtime once the title is secured.

Izaguirre is untroubled by the fact he will have no respite after Brazil. "I don't enjoy holidays," he said. "I am happiest when I am with my family and I see them every afternoon. Football is my life. I don't rest at all, so I will be ready for the World Cup and then after that I will be ready for qualifying.

"Obviously I will be happy when the title comes, but a bit sad because we couldn't get the cups as well. We will work hard on that for next year."

Lennon and his players, it seems, have no intention of resting on their latest laurel.

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