The Celtic manager is entitled to be satisfied with his emergence as a fine manager as his team progressed in the Champions League while Chelsea and Manchester City fell by the wayside
Neil Lennon is emerging from the shadows of Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan. Celtic's manager paid tribute to two of his predecessors in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday night's win over Spartak Moscow. O'Neill never garnered 10 points from a Champions League group nor led a Celtic team to the last 16, despite the significant resources at his disposal. Lennon has achieved both feats in this early phase of his managerial career and at a time of austerity throughout Scottish football.
Strachan did oversee Celtic qualification to the knockout stage and has been a continued, positive influence upon Lennon's coaching development. Lennon shows continued gratitude towards his tutors, whom at the age of 41 he is making considerable strides towards emulating.
It now seems logical that the Celtic manager, like his players, will receive admiring glances on account of European success. At the top level, financial context is everything: as Chelsea, Manchester City, Ajax and Zenit tumbled out of the Champions League, Celtic progressed. Just as there is a reasonable argument that teams in the English top flight are seriously over-rated, Celtic have belied the theory that their base in Scotland means they cannot possibly mix it with the best.
Even within Group G, Celtic are due immense praise for securing a higher points tally than Benfica, who topped Manchester United's section a year ago and progressed to the quarter-finals, and free-spending Spartak. Such matters do not even take into account Celtic's showings over 180 minutes against Barcelona or the general inexperience, at Champions League level, of the Scottish club's players.
Lennon enjoyed such occasions routinely when wearing green and white hoops but many like him have toiled with the conversion into management. It is generally lost on outsiders that the intense demands placed upon managers at either half of the Old Firm – namely those which depict every match as must-win and every loss as a crisis – are not replicated in many other cities. Managing Celtic is a highly pressurised business, one which some – Tony Mowbray being a prime example – have been unable to handle.
Not only has Lennon proven himself increasingly adept at dealing with his working environment – his temperament, for example, has improved and tactical awareness shown to be acute – but he has progressed along with a clutch of now highly valuable players.
The role of the Celtic manager in recruiting such personnel, notably Gary Hooper after he was identified as a key signing target by Lennon when at Scunthorpe United, should also not be understated. Evidence suggests Lennon knows how to find players who will perform in a highly scrutinised environment and doesn't need to spend bundles of cash when doing so. That talent will not go unnoticed elsewhere, nor will Lennon's ability to rehabilitate and improve someone such as Georgios Samaras.
The curious thing about a manager such as Lennon, when appointed by a club with which he is so historically attached – and where he is lauded – is that issues of ambition are ignored. Just as Lennon would not want to sign players who had aspirations only at Celtic, the Northern Irishman must have hopes of working at the upper echelons of the game. Success in the Champions League renders that as a legitimate debate, and rightly or wrongly resonates more than even consistent domestic success in Scotland would.
Celtic offer appreciation, a regular opportunity for silverware, similarly routine participation in Europe and a home atmosphere that is seldom beaten when at its peak. Yet there is also the danger of a lack of professional fulfilment, and frustration as mediocre coaches are afforded opportunities on the glamour platform of the English Premier League. It is also consistently apparent that managers should move when their stock is high, rather than flirt with the danger of stagnation.
Linked to that is the legitimate question of where, precisely, a manager such as Lennon could go as a next career step. Almost certainly, it would involve a smaller club, but in a richer environment.
Privately, Lennon will unquestionably ponder such matters before this season ends. For now, he is fully entitled to take satisfaction from both his own emergence as a fine manager in his own right and a Champions League triumph which has placed Celtic back at the forefront of the European football debate.