BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
NEIL LENNON insists he always knew Brendan Rodgers was destined for the top-level after marvelling at the Celtic boss’ work first-hand eight years ago.
Lennon, 46, has revealed how he travelled to watch Rodgers’ training sessions when the current Parkhead chief was still in charge of Reading. He was immediately won over by the innovation, detail and intensity of his compatriot.
A development coach with Celtic at the time, Lennon departed with plenty of food for thought and would later step into the top job in Glasgow’s east end, leading his boyhood heroes to five major trophies during his three years in the dugout.
The gaffers – who will go head to head when Hibs visit Parkhead tomorrow – still enjoy a good relationship, with the duo exchanging texts in the aftermath of Celtic’s magnificent 3-0 Champions League win over Anderlecht this week.
“I get on very well with Brendan,” smiled Lennon. “I sent him a text after the win in Anderlecht and he got back to me. Being the Celtic manager is like being part of an exclusive club – it is like being the ex-President of the United States!
“There has only been a few of us in the course of the clubs history and it is a very special group to be among. I am very proud of that.
“Brendan has always been great with me. He was very good when I was coaching very early on in my career. His brother contacted me through an e-mail and I was able to go down to Reading to see him for a couple of days.
“I was still coaching the Celtic development team and it was great couple of days. I took an enormous amount of information from him and he was really good. It was something completely different.
“It was just really thorough, there was real snap to the training and the way he put them on. The way he came across in training was top class. He made you think about the game. He learned a lot coming through at Chelsea but he is definitely his own man now and has taken his career onto great things.
“The way his teams play are a joy to watch. I like this Celtic team, I like it a lot.”
It is his first return to Parkhead on competitive business since departing in the summer of 2014. That brought the curtain down on 11 years over two spells with the Bhoys, representing the club as a player, captain, development coach and manager and claiming 16 major trophies and reaching the Uefa Cup final along the way.
“I think it will be difficult [to take emotion out of it],” continued Lennon. “It’s been a while since I’ve been back to Parkhead in a competitive manner. Yes, I’ve been back for functions and press duties, but this is work. I’ve got to put that to one side.
“People say ‘will you enjoy it?’. No, I won’t, either way it will be difficult to enjoy it. But as long as my team plays well and we get a positive result then I came come away satisfied. I have a job to do, my priority is now Hibs.
“If we win, I’ll not be celebrating. It’s three points and we move on. If we get beat, I’ll be very upset – that’s the standards we set for them.”
Should Hibs emerge victorious, it would be Celtic’s first domestic defeat since May 11, 2016 – a run now stretching an astonishing 57 matches. Lennon is adamant that is of no consequence to him, and has urged his side to ensure the do not leave Glasgow’s east end with any regrets.
Lenny added: “That makes no difference to me; it’s not my record. It is irrelevant to me that they are on this great run of domestic games.
“If we were to break it, so be it. It will end at some stage. But that wouldn’t make me any happier.
“When I was at Celtic, sides raised their game. They came in a no-lose situation and play well and play above the norm. So I’m hoping that’s the case for my players on Saturday. I want to hurt them. I want our players them to be positive.
“These are the games you want to play in. You want to test yourself against the best. Don’t just enjoy it, make the most of it. And what I mean by make the most of it is: play. Don’t have any regrets.”
Celtic captain Scott Brown, meanwhile, is a major doubt for the clash after limping off against Anderlecht and could also be touch-and-go for Scotland’s crunch World Cup qualifiers against Slovakia and Slovenia.
Lennon added: “Broony had a brilliant season last year and started this season really well for club and country. I think he’s under-rated, in terms of his footballing ability.
“People talk about the gallusness and aggression. But Broony can really play, he can really handle the ball.
“He’s a fantastic athlete and a great presence on the pitch, as well. He has matured. You do that with age and he’s looked after himself really well, is in great condition. He’s a huge figure in that team not just because of his personality. but because of the player he is.
“I hope for Scotland’s sake, going into these big games, that he’s fit – but I’m also hoping he doesn’t recover for Saturday . . . I think he could do with a break!”