The Hibs gaffer is well-qualified to be a part of TV3’s Champions League team having masterminded the Bhoys' legendary win against Barca. Heady Parkhead nights, Oasis, Irvine Welsh, Brendan Rodgers, sectarianism and his current manager’s gig at Hibernian are all on the agenda as he talks footie ‘n’ rock ‘n’roll with Stuart Clark
“You’re the music magazine, aren’t you?”
“Does that mean we can talk about Stiff Little Fingers and Oasis?”
Neil Lennon looked like he was about to doze off a few minutes ago - getting up at 5am to fly from Glasgow to Dublin would do that to you - but is suddenly buzzing as he tells Hot Press about his active service during the Great Britpop War.
“Stuart Pearce, who was England under-21 manager at the time and is mad into his ‘70s punk, came up to Celtic one day, discovered that Stiff Little Fingers were in town that night and took me to see them play in this amazing little venue, the Barrowlands, which used to be a ballroom and has a sprung dancefloor. It felt like you were standing on a trampoline.
“I’d just joined Manchester City in 1987 when the whole Britpop thing erupted. I’ve seen Oasis 13 or 14 times, including at Maine Road, which is one of the best gigs I’ve ever been at. I’ve met them a few times – Liam is a lot smarter than he makes out, and Noel just cracks you up every time he opens his mouth – and I named my son after them as well. He’s called Gallagher…”
Is Neil aware that another former City, player, Richard Dunne has an 11-year-old daughter called Lyla?
“No,” he smiles. “After the Don’t Believe A Word song? Brilliant, I’ll have to talk to Dunner about that the next time I see him. I was still a stroppy teenager myself, so that whole ‘We don’t give a fuck!’ attitude made a massive impression on me. I went everywhere – London, Sheffield, all over – to see Oasis and met some great people along the way. I get the same nowadays off Kasabian – I’ve tried to get the Hibs lads to play them in the dressing room, but they’re more into their Ed Sheeran and dance remixes. Some of it’s okay, but I’m into my guitars.”
Having grown up listening to The Undertones, Neil was one of the first through the doors at his local cinema to see the Terri Hooley Good Vibrations biopic.
“The guy who played Terri Hooley and is now in Game Of Thrones, Richard Dormer, is from not too far away from me in Lurgan,” he reveals. “I’m a big Undertones fan, so it was fascinating to see all the stunts Terri pulled when they were starting out. You get the whole spectrum of Belfast life rather than the clichés. The way they deal with The Troubles is brilliant. When people say, ‘It must have been awful growing up in Northern Ireland’, I say, ‘Watch Good Vibrations and you’ll see it wasn’t all bad.’”
Although Neil would gladly talk rock ‘n’ roll all day – “That’s amazing… and he’s from Belfast?” is his reaction when I tell him that the man who did the Good Vibrations soundtrack, David Holmes, has produced the new Noel Gallagher record – we mustn’t forget that his primary reason for being here is the launch of TV3’s Champions League coverage.
Sadly, Celtic’s participation in Europe’s premier club competition is unlikely to yield anything as joyous as the Bhoys’ November 7, 2012 smiting of Barcelona at Parkhead.
“We’d played brilliantly two weeks earlier in the Nou Camp, but lost 2-1 in the 93rd minute,” Neil recalls. “After the game, I told the lads, ‘Hold on to how you’re feeling. Take all your frustration out on them – if you can because they’re the best team in the world – at Celtic Park in front of 60,000 of your own supporters’. The night before the return game, we’d had the 125th anniversary of the club in the pub where it was founded, The Celt. There was a service and a bit of a play remembering 1892. I’m sitting next to Dermot Desmond and there was just something in the air. The gist of my team talk was: ‘Be disciplined; whatever about 11 men, we’re not going to beat Barcelona with just 10. These guys know how to make the most of a challenge, so no jumping in or raising a hand. Try and force them out into wider areas and make the set-pieces count because we’re not going to get too many chances from open play.’ The other thing you need is your goalkeeper to play very, very well and we had Frasier Forster who revels in those sorts of occasion.
“We weren’t brilliant at the start, but sort of clawed our way into the game. In the 21st minute, we got a corner, which Victor Wanynama nodded in and that gave us something to hold onto. If Barcelona had scored first, it would have flattened the crowd and likely or not they’d have seen the game out comfortably. Anyway, Parkhead goes nuts, the players seem to grow two or three inches in height and produce some of the best defensive football I’ve ever seen as Barcelona, who are rightly pissed off at having gone behind, launch wave after wave of attack. They’re even more pissed off when Tony Watt, who’d just come on, scored in the 83rd minute from a breakaway. I turned to my assistant manager and said, ‘We might get a draw now!’ but despite Messi getting one back in injury time, we held on and five years later it’s still being talked about and will always be talked about!”
As somebody who now has to plot Celtic’s downfall at least four times a season with Hibernian, what advice does Neil have for their Champions League opponents?
“If the game’s at Parkhead, quiet the crowd down early on. Some top teams have gone there, and been overwhelmed by the noise, which is deafening at times. You’re there shouting out instructions knowing that there’s fuck all chance anyone’s going to hear them! Test the keeper out as early as possible. The Celtic team aren’t physical but they are quick, so you might have to defend deep and try and counter-attack. If they smell blood, they can go 1, 2, 3 up very quickly, so keep your concentration.”
Asked how the current Celtic squad compares to the ones he played in from 2000-2007, Lennon immediately shoots back: “Ours were far superior. When Martin O’Neill came to Glasgow in 2000, he spent £6 million bringing Chris Sutton in from Chelsea, which nowadays is the equivalent of £30/40m. The days of Celtic competing with English clubs for players are long gone. They get, maybe, £2m for winning the Premier League in Scotland whilst Chelsea get £100m-plus. Brendan’s recruitment has been really smart, but with Anderlecht, Bayern and PSG in their group it’ll be a minor miracle if they get out of it.”
Lennon’s admiration for Brendan Rodgers doesn’t end with his ability to make shrewd signings like Scott Sinclair who’s been a revelation since his arrival from Aston Villa for a mere £3.15m and Moussa Dembélé who’s now worth at least ten times the £2.7m Celtic paid Fulham for him in July 2016.
“Those were both outstanding pieces of business. I’m a little bit older than Brendan, so we missed each other as players. My first time meeting him properly was when I was coaching Celtic and his brother sent an email inviting me down to Reading where he was manager at the time. I spent a couple of days with Brendan, and learnt so much about the game from him. He’s a great guy and seems dead happy at Celtic despite the naysayers saying, ‘You should be winning every game with that squad.’ The important thing for Brendan was getting into the Champions League where he’ll now be pitting his wits against Unai Emery and Carlo Ancelotti. I tell you what; he’s a match for them both tactically and will only get better as he gains more and more European experience.”
Lennon made a shrewd signing of his own during the summer when he brought Anthony Stokes back to Hibs for his third stint at Easter Road. With four in six SPL starts, should he be interesting Martin O’Neill whose Ireland side is crying out for guile and goals - but possibly not the tabloid controversy that seems to follow the Dubliner around?
“All I can say is that his attitude with me has been spot on,” Neil proffers. “He’s still not up to 100% fitness but has already chipped in with some very valuable goals. During his previous spells at Hibs, he had a one in two scoring record, so it was a no-brainer bringing Anthony back after he didn’t have a great time last season at Blackburn. The crucial thing is that he focuses on his football. He’s 29 and at the peak of his career, but whether or not playing in the SPL is good enough for Martin I don’t know.”
Since arriving at Hibs in June 2016 – he won promotion back to the Scottish Premier League at the first time of asking – Lennon has beefed up the club’s Irish scouting operations.
“I’ve been over watching League of Ireland games myself and been very impressed with the standard, and we’re watching a few players in the North as well,” he reveals. “Some of the Irish players go to England and come back early because they’re homesick or there’s been a change of coach or manager, but they don’t lose their ability. They play in an environment they’re comfortable with and come again. Those two at Dundalk, Horgan and Doyle, went over to Preston where they’ve been joined by that young lad from Cork, Sean Maguire, who I imagine Martin’s having a very close look at. Roy Keane was 19 and at Cobh Ramblers before he went to England. Kevin Doyle was another who got a good schooling in the domestic league and arguably Ireland’s two best current players, Seamus Coleman and James McLean, weren’t that long ago at Sligo and Derry. The League of Ireland only gets a fraction of the credit it deserves.” Meanwhile, the other O’Neill, Michael, has more or less guaranteed Northern Ireland a World Cup qualifying play-off berth following their 2-0 taming of the Czech Republic.
“What he’s achieved is phenomenal,” he nods. “Republic of Ireland fans bemoan having so few top-tier players in the squad, but Michael has lads from Bury, Charlton, Burton, St. Johnstone and Bradford City playing for him. They’re so well organised. I think he could be in for a top, top job if and when he decides he’s done all he can do with Northern Ireland.” Whilst leaving Celtic means no more post-game hanging out in the VIP Lounge with Rod Stewart who famously cried the night they beat Barca, Hibs have a few celebrity fans of their own.
“Yeah, we’ve Andy Murray and his mum Judy, The Proclaimers, the actor Dougray Scott and Irvine Welsh who’s unbelievable. I met him at the premiere of Trainspotting 2, which he invited me along to and then came to the training ground. He’s always got his finger on the pulse when it comes to Hibs.”
Begbie & Co. all being Easter Road regulars when they’re not skagged out. “Yeah, there’s just one character who’s very pointedly a Hearts supporter,” Neil laughs. “I love his books. Skagboys is great, as is the one about a taxi driver in Edinburgh, Dirty Ride. I’m laughing out loud reading them because they’re so funny. It’s a bit like Roddy Doyle with The Commitments and the rest of The Barrytown Trilogy; the characters are so well written.”
Lennon thought sectarianism in Scottish football was mainly bluster until January 2011 when the Royal Mail intercepted packages containing bullets that were addressed to him and two of Celtic’s Northern Irish players, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt. Three months later he was sent a parcel bomb, prompting then Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to condemn “those that use football as a pretext for their pathetic and dangerous prejudices.”
Last month, he was the subject of ferocious sectarian abuse when he took up his position in the Ibrox dug-out for the first time since 2012. Hibs winning the game 3-2 further enraged the natives, some of whom felt it necessary to lob coins and lighters at Lennon when, in their eyes, he over-exuberantly celebrated the 21st minute goal that levelled the score at 1-1. Complaints of incitement were rejected by Glasgow City Police who were more interested in the renewed death threats he received after the game.
“People chant and shout things that sometimes aren’t very pleasant but, usually, come the final whistle they’re off back home and in work the following day with the same people they’ve been chanting and shouting at,” Neil reflects. “Which doesn’t make it alright, of course.
Sectarianism is part of the game in Scotland, but fortunately it doesn’t happen every week.”
As was evidenced by Neil popping in to a local pub after Hibs had drawn 1-1 away to Dundee and buying the Dee fans a drink.
“That was a fucking expensive round,” he deadpans. “I went into the pub with an old Celtic teammate of mine, Rab Douglas, to say ‘thank you’ to the people there for the charity stuff they do. There was a bit of banter, but all good natured.”
Should Ireland fail to qualify for Russia and Martin O’Neill subsequently find himself reunited with his P45, Neil Lennon is sure to feature on the Paddy Power list of possible replacements. If that’s the case, should we have a few quid on him?
“Not yet,” he smiles. “It doesn’t really appeal to me. I like the day-to-day stuff.”
So impressed was Lennon with Donegal manager Jim McGuinness’ Sam-winning antics that in 2012 he made him a member of the Celtic backroom staff.
“Jim’s very smart, innovative and forward thinking. I’m delighted he got that assistant manager role recently in China, although I’m annoyed that I haven’t got a postcard from him yet! When I was there, he was working with the young Celtic lads and, being a lateral thinker, helped with both the physical and psychological side of the game. He changed the face of Gaelic football with his blanket defence/counter-attacking style, which wasn’t to everyone’s taste but was very successful. He worked under myself, Ronnie and Brendan at Celtic, so he’s added to what was already a very good spectrum of sporting knowledge.”
Following a disappointing couple of years at Bolton, which ended in him leaving by “mutual consent”, Lennon is flying it again in Edinburgh.
“Somebody said to me, ‘It’s a bit of a step down from Celtic’, and I was like, ‘Hang on, this is a club with 142 years of tradition and well over 17,000 people through the turnstiles every home game.’ That’s a very big deal in my book. The title’s 100% Celtic’s but with the way we’ve started, I’ll be disappointed if Hibs aren’t in Europe next season.”
Neil Lennon is a panellist on TV3’s Champions League coverage