Neil Lennon felt the weight of Martin O’Neill's arm on his shoulder as often as he felt the wrath of his fellow Irishman’s temper. The duo enjoyed an almost paternal relationship that began all the way back in 1996 when O’Neill drove to Lennon’s digs in Crewe, sifted through the wreckage and came up with the back of discarded pizza box to secure the midfielder’s signature.

It is not just Lennon’s surroundings that have moved on substantially from the likely-lads bachelor pad in the intervening years. The boisterous, confrontational aspect to Lennon that was his hallmark during the near-on two decades that he has spent in Scotland seemed to be muted at Celtic as he took over from Brendan Rodgers at the end of February.

Whether or not it was the oddness of the circumstances, which Lennon himself described as akin to driving someone else’s luxury sports car that you were afraid to scratch, there was a palpable difference to his demeanour. Still, as the 47-year-old got his feet under the desk yesterday knowing that he has the job for keeps, O’Neill reckons that it is Lennon’s fire and drive that make him the ideal candidate as Celtic prepare for a season in which they can level the nine-in-a-row title record set by Jock Stein and levelled by Walter Smith’s Rangers side.


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“The thing that really makes him such a good manager is that he has real strength of character,” said O’Neill. “And for me there is an easy answer when people are asking why Celtic have given him the job for a second time – he was the outstanding candidate for it.

“He has the personality to go and drive the club forward. It is a huge season in terms of going for a ninth title but he knows the club. He has dealt with pressures in that job that no-one else has had to and I think having the mettle to cope with the intensity of this season will be huge.”

Lennon’s appointment, though, was not greeted with universal approval.

There was an accusation towards the board that they had failed to properly scout alternatives and for a man who enjoyed hero status within the Celtic support it seemed like an unusual response. Indeed, there were times in the recent past when Lennon attended charity functions at Celtic events and got a bigger welcome than the then Celtic manager.

O’Neill admitted that he was taken aback by the fact there was some disgruntlement at Lennon’s getting the job.

“This idea that he was cheap or the board were negligent in not looking elsewhere seems exceptionally unfair,” he said. “When I heard that there was some criticism towards Neil getting the job I would have to say that it truly took me aback. I am not sure why that would be the case. I really can’t get my head around it at all.


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“If the opportunity allows, I watch Celtic games on television and I am not sure that the season had been entirely fluent for the duration of the campaign, for one reason or another. So it was not a given that he would walk in there and get it right and I think you have to be really appreciative of the kind of pressure he was under in those months – all the while as he was trying to win a Treble, which is no mean feat.

“I sometimes wonder in this day and age whether there is an opinion that is as widespread as things are reported. When I watched the Scottish Cup final I heard his name sung loudly and clearly. It didn’t seem to me that there was an issue there so I do have cause to ponder at times whether the echo chamber of social media nowadays creates something that is not necessarily there.”

Lennon welcomed a skeletal squad back to Lennoxtown yesterday as the preparations for the new campaign get going. Celtic will discover their early Champions League opponents for the first two rounds of the qualifiers later today with the journey into the group stages of Europe’s premier tournament lending an edge to the first weeks of the season.

One of the accusations levelled at Lennon’s appointment was an ‘old-school’ mentality and while a comparison between the Irishman and Rodgers would affirm the differences between the two, O’Neill was quick to point out some of the results that Lennon can boast in Europe remain impressive. By contrast, Rodgers’ Celtic were on the end of bruising scorelines against the likes of Barcelona and PSG that had them hankering for the shrill of a full-time whistle long before it delivered respite.


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“I think his record is excellent and I think people overlook that,” said O’Neill. “Sometimes there is a danger that when you are so woven into a club that people can lose a little bit of appreciation for what it is you do. If memory serves me right this was a man who took Celtic into the last 16 of the Champions League, a man who orchestrated one of the great European results at Celtic Park with a win over a Barcelona side that were widely regarded as one of the best teams ever at that point.

“So there is a tactical acumen there with Neil. He can adapt. He can organise.

“I am not too sure how many people would have wanted that job in the circumstances that it was offered; going into a pretty shocked dressing room with a treble Treble in the offing. You need to be a certain character and have a certain personality to be able to go and do that.”