Lennon bids to take Celtic to another level

"The next step is to play at a high level in Europe," Neil Lennon told Champions Matchday as he bids to improve Celtic FC's fortunes on the continent, starting at FC Spartak Moskva.

Neil Lennon hopes Celtic can make their presence felt on the European stage
Neil Lennon hopes Celtic can make their presence felt on the European stage ©Getty Images

As a player, Neil Lennon was the combative heart of the Celtic FC side that re-emerged as a European force under Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan. Now, having become permanent manager in June 2010, he is looking to forge his credentials among Europe's coaching elite.

"European nights at Celtic Park are pretty special," Lennon told Champions Matchday. "When the teams line up, and the Champions League music goes up, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. There's no beating that.

"A couple of favourite memories stand out – the 4-3 game against Juventus in 2001 was a brilliant night, and Shunsuke Nakamura's free-kick against Manchester United in 2006. To beat United 1-0 and qualify for the last 16 for the first time just topped off my Celtic career."

Times have changed since then, however. Gone are the days when Celtic could splash out millions on the likes of Lennon, Chris Sutton or John Hartson. The club now have a policy of scouring the globe for the best young players, who are then sold on at a profit, while rearing local talents such as James Forrest.

Building a team that will dominate at home and compete in the UEFA Champions League is a daunting prospect, but Lennon is relishing it. "We've built a team, I wouldn't say from scratch, but we've made a lot of changes in two years and come a long way in a short time," he said. "You want to make the progression. The first target was to win the league; we've done that. The next step is to play at a high level in European football."

Lennon may not have the financial muscle available to his predecessors but he says he has other resources to draw on. "I have regular conversations with [former Celtic managers] Gordon [Strachan] and Martin [O'Neill] if the chance comes along: how they were feeling or what they were expecting of the team at the time. It's invaluable to get that kind of advice.

"I was with Martin for ten years as a player at Leicester and at Celtic. He made a huge impact on me, my thinking about the game, how I played the game, and the success he brought to all the clubs he worked with. A lot of what I do now is based on what Martin did.

"I'm not rigid in any shape or form but I do like to play attacking football. I do like to have good footballers in the team allied to a bit of physical presence. We feel we've got a vibrant young team who play without too much fear. Personally, I'm a lot calmer than I used to be, although the passion still burns very brightly inside. I'm more comfortable in the role now with the experience I've gained."

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