Celtic's manager Neil Lennon talks about his future, the demise of Rangers – and having pancakes with Sir Alex Ferguson
Neil Lennon has never been one to seek endorsements of his professional ability. If he ever did, however, the Celtic manager could take confidence from the admiration afforded to him by the most respected manager in British football.
Celtic's season, which has featured a victory over arguably the best team ever, Barcelona, as well as progression to the last 16 of the Champions League, could not have started better. On one Sunday afternoon in August, Sir Alex Ferguson paid a visit to Celtic's training ground and, in doing so, played a part in Lennon's coaching development.
"He gave us two hours of his time, which he didn't have to do, and I thought it was a brilliant gesture," Lennon says. "It was in the privacy of a room at the training ground, just myself and my backroom staff, some tea and pancakes.
"He was in great form. He has given us little titbits along the way for the Champions League games. I'm not saying that has got us over the line, but every little bit helps. He was one of the only managers to write me a letter when we won the championship in May and I'll be eternally grateful to him for that, as well."
Celtic's training ground is an enthusiastic, confident environment at the moment. The success in the Champions League, where Juventus await in February, and the virtually certain defence of the Scottish Premier League are crucial to that. Looking back to how they got there, Lennon refers both to his maiden title win as Celtic manager and progression through the Champions League's qualifying stage as "pivotal".
"You never get fully comfortable in any managerial role but you get more confident with success like that in the background," he says. "I got fed up with people saying: 'He's a young manager and he'll make mistakes.'
"Old managers make mistakes: Wenger makes mistakes, Ferguson makes mistakes, Mourinho makes mistakes. So what do people call them? Before winning the league, I felt like I was on probation. It has been a massive year for me, personally."
Perhaps there was prescience from Ferguson in noting that Lennon's managerial stock would soon be on the rise. Just as a clutch of Celtic players – Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper among them – have received admiring glances from England, it is logical to suggest Lennon, too, could be coaxed to a more lucrative environment. Yet, in a nod towards the continued allure of Celtic, Lennon stresses it is wrong to suggest he would be tempted south by finance alone. "People speak about that but I haven't had one phone call," Lennon says. "I have an agent who would have told me if there was any interest or even a whiff of it.
"And even then, it would take a lot for me to be tempted. It would have to be a club where there is the same substance to the job as I have here. That might not be in England, it might be abroad, but it would have to be a hell of an offer and a hell of a club to take me away from here at the minute.
"I really want to put the club at the forefront of European football again. Now that is a huge challenge because we are up against it financially, but it is one I enjoy.
"Other places wouldn't give you the same buzz. You would really have to go to a Champions League club to match what you have here. The opportunity to win trophies and the exposure you get at Celtic is something only maybe five or six clubs in England could match. The intensity of life here is something I'm used to, I'm institutionalised in it. In Glasgow, there is always a challenge.
"Something else coming up isn't something I think about. It's nice to have people patting you on the back but it lasts a month until your next bad result, and people go away and talk about somebody else."
Lennon speaks through uncomfortable experience. He left Glasgow once before, for a brief playing spell at Nottingham Forest. "I just couldn't get my head around it at all, which was my own fault," he recalled. "There was a lack of intensity, a humdrum lifestyle of a footballer down there."
Scotland's own football landscape has been altered significantly by the removal of Rangers from the top flight and, therefore, the routine Glasgow derbies.
"I don't particularly miss the to-ing and fro-ing," Lennon admits. "I think everybody misses the build up to the game itself and the raw energy that those matches bring but as a manager I don't miss them because they are not a nice experience at times. When you win, you just feel a pressure release and when you lose you are in a dark place for two or three days. People on the outside, the supporters, love all that theatre. Me? I'm happy without it."
And in the inevitable circumstance that the Glasgow duo meet again, will things be different? "I think it will be. I don't think Rangers are as strong on the pitch and I don't think they are as strong an institution as they once were.
"And we are, we have got stronger. We have got better on the pitch and the revenue we have brought in this year will leave us financially stable for a long, long time. I don't know the ins and outs of Rangers, I just look at their team and it has been significantly weakened because of all the big players who have gone."
Lennon is more content, too, with a relative serenity around his private life after the string of threats which earlier endangered his safety. Eight months ago, two men were jailed for five years each after being found guilty of sending suspect packages to Lennon and two other high-profile Celtic supporters. "I think those guys getting put away in April has become a deterrent for anybody else. Things haven't been as bad for me, which has made life a lot easier," Lennon said.
"I think without the Rangers-Celtic thing there has become more banter than anything sinister. At times when the two teams are competing for things there seems to be more of an edge to the sectarian element.
"This is my job and I love my job. There were days when I thought about rapping it but you see the players progressing, you come here close the door and get on with your work. You realise there aren't many better jobs in the world. Do you really need to give it up? I was well looked after security-wise, had to put up with a bit of crap here and there but as long as the security people tell you that you aren't in imminent danger, you just get on with things."
Lennon remains more eloquent, erudite and engaging than many have routinely given him credit for. Should his detractors be in the Northern Irishman's company for 10 minutes, they would acknowledge that. Still, the image of Lennon as a hot-head is one that irks the man himself .
"Kenny Shiels and Steve Lomas [in charge of Kilmarnock and St Johnstone, respectively] at the minute are in trouble with the SFA. They are seen as a breath of fresh air for calling things as they see it, whereas I'm perceived as l'enfant terrible or the thug on the touchline. It's the perception people have," Lennon said. "It has bothered me because I was just, like Kenny, trying to be as honest as I could.
"If you look at my results over my three years in charge, we have been pretty successful here. I know how to get a winning team on the pitch more times than not and I think that's the most important thing.
"That doesn't give me the right to behave in a certain manner but I think I have toned that down as well. There are still times when you will lose your temper, when you don't think referees are having a good game. Now people don't perceive me as making as big a fuss about it. Other managers do worse than me without getting the negative publicity that I would get.
"This isn't me bleating about it, it's just a fact of life. I keep going back to the Celtic manager's manual; people keep telling me I can't do this, can't do that. Where is this green book that I need to read? You stamp your own personality on the job and take it from there."
Lennon has done that. And some. Just as intriguing as Celtic's upcoming games with Juventus is the question of how far their manager's talents and ambitions can take him.
To celebrate the club's 125th anniversary, Celtic aim to raise £1.25m for their charitable fund, the main beneficiary being the Teenage Cancer Trust. Celtic fans around the world are showing their continual commitment to the founding principles of the club bypresenting their story "Football for Good" and raising money in many different ways. Visit www.celticfc.net/charity for full details and to contribute