Celtic boss Neil Lennon's high standards are paying dividends

By Keir MurrayBBC Scotland
Lennon (left) is emotional at the final whistle at Rugby Park
Lennon (left) is emotional at the final whistle at Rugby Park

Celtic had to wait a few weeks longer than they might have hoped to clinch the Scottish Premier League, but Saturday's 6-0 hammering of Kilmarnock means the title party has now begun.

Neil Lennon, emotional as well as proud at the final whistle, guided his team to their first championship since 2008 and his first as a manager.

Talk by some rivals players and fans of it being a "tainted title", by dint of Rangers' 10-point penalty for entering administration, is surely nonsense. To win the SPL before the league splits into two sections of two is a resounding success.

If Rangers were to end the season fewer than 10 points behind their old rivals, it would help soothe the pain of the Ibrox faithful, but the rules are the rules and the deposed champions were punished by the SPL for falling foul of them.

Paul Hartley has witnessed Lennon at close quarters at Celtic, having played beside him in the second half of the 2006-07 season and having worked under him when he returned from Wycombe as a coach.

Neil Lennon and Paul Hartley
Lennon and Hartley were team-mates before the former became a coach

The pair celebrated at Tannadice when Celtic retained the league title there four years ago.

For the former Scotland midfielder, this league win, added to Celtic's Scottish Cup triumph last season, shows that Lennon's drive for high standards is paying dividends.

"He puts demands on his players," said the 35-year-old, who hours later clinched the Third Division title with Alloa Athletic in his first season as a manager.

"He was my captain for six months then a coach. He sets certain standards at the club and demands that they are met.

"It all stems from the top. When you see him screaming at his players even though they are winning a game by a few goals, that's because he sees slackness coming in; he sees standards slipping.

"Look how the players have responded to him. You demand a total standard throughout a football club, not just in the first team."

Hartley, who left Celtic for Bristol City in 2009 after two and a half years at the club, says Lennon's main aim would have been to do well in the league.

In June, Lennon admitted he was under pressure to end Rangers' run of three consecutive titles. "If you go two years as an Old Firm manager without a title, it might be very difficult to keep your job," was his candid assessment.

The 40-year-old enjoys a good relationship with Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell, but the board's loyalty may have been strained had the title not been secured.

It had topped up his first-season spree in the transfer market by providing funds to sign defenders Kelvin Wilson, Adam Matthews, Mikael Lustig and Andre Blackman, midfielder Victor Wanyama, and bring in goalkeeper Fraser Forster and striker Pawel Brozek on loan.

Celtic captain Scott Brown starts the celebrations at Rugby Park
Celtic captain Scott Brown starts the celebrations at Rugby Park

This season's Treble dreams were killed off by Kilmarnock in the Scottish Communities League Cup final, but the Double is still on if they can progress beyond Hearts in the Scottish Cup semi-final.

Celtic's, and Lennon's, SPL season turned around at Rugby Park in October, when they trailed Kilmarnock 3-0 at half-time.

The manager admitted he would have considered resigning had they not staged an amazing comeback in which they earned a point with three goals in eight second-half minutes.

Three weeks later, Celtic, in third place, trailed Rangers by 15 points, although they had two games in hand.

However, Rangers stumbled, their strike duo Steven Naismith and Nikica Jelavic were injured and sold respectively, and Lennon led his team to a run of 17 consecutive league wins from November to February.

With the title delivered, Hartley feels that Lennon can enjoy a temporary respite from the pressure of being Celtic manager.

"Celtic are a massive club worldwide," he said. "The pressure is on you straight away. That's why you go to a club like that - to test yourself.

"You're expected to win every single match. If you don't, the pressure mounts.

"But he won't be taking anything for granted now. He'll want to strengthen his team again, especially for games in Europe.

"Neil has shown he has what it takes as a manager. He's a good man manager and he has a good eye for a player.

"Not all signings work out, everybody makes mistakes, but look what Emilio Izaguirre, Beram Kayal, Gary Hooper, Charlie Mulgrew and Joe Ledley have brought to the team."

Lennon's three recent notices of complaint from the Scottish Football Association's compliance officer suggest the Celtic boss is not immune to pressure and, match officials might argue, above making mistakes.

However, as the title celebrations begin, he can be satisfied with his season's work - even in early April.