Celtic's glory run ending in Scottish Cup final won't halt drive for domination says Neil Lennon
Celtic will either complete a quadruple treble, knowing they will not be in a position to extend the sequence thanks to their League Cup elimination, or they will be left with, eh, just the 11 straight slices of silverware over an extraordinary four-year monopoly of domestic honours.
He forever says it is not about him, but the decider against Hearts has monumental significance for Neil Lennon... and perceptions of him within his own support that have been sullied profoundly in recent months. The Irishman will either lead his team to a world first, and in the process become the first man to win trebles both as a player and manager, or he will suffer another desperate disappointment that will be yet one more black mark against his name. In a season where he has teetered on the brink.
It is a situation that has led to him being flailed by Celtic fans over myriad failings. These shortcomings were laid bare in a run of only two wins in 12 games that they now appear to have put behind them with back-to-back victories. Not though, before theses resulted in Rangers establishing a potentially decisive lead in a title non-negotiable for the faithful crazed over landing a record 10th title, grizzly European results and a halt to the winning cup run.
All of which is why Lennon is sensitive to any sense that the tussle with the Gorgie side represents the full stop on an unforgettable domestic era. A period that, curiously enough, began at Tynecastle on August 7, 2016 with then new Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers’ opening league game of campaign that would deliver an inconceivable unbeaten treble.
“There’s still a lot to play for,” Lennon said. “There’s the chance to win 10 in-a-row, there’s the chance to win another cup at the end of this season. So, there’s still a hell of a lot to play for. It’s not as if we don’t win on Sunday then the world stops, you go again on Wednesday against Ross County. We just keep that focus. If we win we’ll enjoy that moment, and you can look back on it at the end of the season with a lot of pride and admiration.”
Lennon can take pride that, across an association with Celtic stretching back two decades, this latest final will be his 15th and seventh as a manager. He has been on the losing side in only four of those, two as a manager. He has four Scottish Cup winners’ medals as a player, and will be attempting to lead the club to a fourth triumph in the competition from the sidelines to bag a first managerial treble. A triple that would allow him to join Celtic treble-snaring predecessors Jock Stein, Martin O’Neill and Rodgers.
No-one then needs wonder, when it comes to Lennon and his players, if they know their history - and grasp how much is on the line against Robbie Neilson’s men.
“The players are completely aware of what the gravity of the game is,” he said. “A lot of them have won three trebles and they don’t take it for granted. We know how difficult it is to win a trophy. They’ve done brilliantly and that’s why it has been so remarkable. I think because they’ve done it that many times, people just take it for granted. Now we’re out of the League Cup, there’s that feeling of wanting it even more. We’ll go into the game with a real positive mindset and that will to win.”
The pandemic has ensured this will be the first ever Scottish final to be played behind closed doors, and Lennon concedes it will mean “a different” celebration for the winners in a deserted Hampden. The poser is whether it will affect players’ performances. At times this season, Celtic have patently struggled to produce the sustained impetus that would ordinarily flow from the waves of energy transmitted to them by their massed ranks.
That situation has appeared particularly acute in the uneven, often sluggish, displays of Odsonne Edouard. He almost single-handedly won Celtic the trophy when they met Hearts in the previous Scottish Cup final, in May 2019. Lennon has no doubt he could do so again.
"These occasions bring the best out in Odsonne. He is a big-game player,” said the Celtic manager. “That's a great thing to have and it speaks volumes for his character as you forget how young he is [at 22]. He is quality and is a real talismanic figure for us. If he is on song then we have a real chance of winning the Scottish Cup. Like the majority of the players at the minute, he misses the fans in the stadium at the moment. He's an entertainer at the end of the day. But he's in a good position mentally and physically and like the others, he's had a good record in this competition. We are all looking for more of the same in this final.
"But I'm not going to put all the spotlight on Odsonne as we have quality elsewhere too. Mohamed Elyounoussi is in great scoring form this season and is a threat from the wide areas. Ryan Christie, Tom Rogic, David Turnbull...they are all matchwinners on the day as well. We also have two big threats from set-pieces in Chris Jullien and Shane Duffy. No matter who scores the goals, we are just looking for a volume and a consistency in performance. We have experienced players who have been over the course and distance before and that will help on Sunday.”
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