NEIL Lennon insists he would have relished an Old Firm showdown with Joey Barton after the Rangers midfielder’s inflammatory comments stoked the flames ahead of today’s eagerly-anticipated encounter.
Lennon was not one for taking a backward step during his days as an aggressive on-field fulcrum at Celtic and loved the heat of the battle in clashes with bitter foes Rangers.
As if the return of the Old Firm fixture in the league for the first time in four years was not enough to rekindle old rivalries, on his arrival in Scotland Barton lit the blue touch paper with a clear attempt to rile opposite number Scott Brown.
The outspoken Barton branded Brown ‘not even in my league’ and insisted the Celtic skipper ‘does not stand a chance’ when they come face to face this season.
However, Lennon believes Barton – who also accused Hoops manager Brendan Rodgers of suffering from a ‘mid-life crisis’ – has simply put himself under massive pressure for today’s mouthwatering clash with his bold bragging.
Asked how he would have dealt with Barton, Lennon said: “I would have been looking forward to it.
“I wouldn’t have worried about it, put it that way – and I don’t think Scott will either.
“When you make comments like that, you set yourself up. Barton has to back that up now.
“So he’s put himself under a huge amount of pressure for this game.”
Lennon believes the quality on both sides has taken a dip in the past 15 years since his playing days but insists the interest in the meeting of Glasgow’s big two will ‘never waver’.
The 45-year-old will be busy preparing for Hibs’ meeting with Dumbarton but admits he is likely to check up on events at Parkhead as Rodgers savours the match for the first time and Mark Warburton for a second following April’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
Lennon has, of course, experienced Old Firm games from the dugout as well as the heart of the pitch and believes those who have tasted the fixture in the past can play a key role in guiding debutants through a frenetic 90 minutes.
He added: “Celtic are the favourites but you just never can tell the way the game will go, who will settle better.
“I think the ones who have played in this fixture before can be a huge benefit to the ones who haven’t.
“They will at least try to talk them through it. But it’s very difficult to describe your first experience of it.”
Lennon’s passionate approach as manager of Celtic infamously boiled over in the aftermath of one Old Firm clash when he became embroiled in an ugly exchange with Rangers counterpart Ally McCoist.
The two had to be separated following a 1-0 win for Celtic in 2011 that had featured three red cards for Rangers.
But the Northern Irishman is not expecting any touchline confrontations to mar today’s encounter.
He said: “Obviously myself and Ally had our confrontation. But we were sort of set in it, we were ingrained in it for a long, long time.
“Both of us knew what it meant, not just to us but everyone at the club, every supporter.
“With Brendan and Mark, it’s different. There is a fresher outlook on it. Come half two, three o’clock, they’ll both know what it’s all been about.
“Mark has had the experience already of winning one. But this is the league now, the Premiership. The onus and expectation is huge on both managers.”
And there can only be one piece of advice Lennon would pass on to Rodgers: “Win it. Two words.”