A mature performance, from a youthful team

That was how I saw last nights second leg in Helsinki. Better organisation and execution of our game-play away from home in Europe.

The only thing that let us down was the card happy referee. He was too quick to bring out the cards for Celtic players and was uneven-handed throughout.
I’m not suggesting this is the kind of bias we have come know in our native land. This was a home advantage that was clearly evident in the referee’s decision making.

Celtic ploughed on though and carried out with their game plan even after the double yellow Victor received. Right there and then I thought we’d blown it but we didn’t – we got tighter.

This was another step forward for Neil Lennon’s young team. Their development under him is encouraging.

There is no doubt in my mind that HJK are not the best team in the world we could play. In the last few summers though, Europe has not exactly seen the best out if us in qualifying stages.

Is there possibility this could be a coming of age transformation for this team? Only time and results will telly of course, but the next round will have greater challenges in store.

What cannot be denied though is that Lennon is getting somewhere with this squad. There are perhaps two or three players required in each direction to stretch those capabilities further but this team is developing into something better.

I suppose you could say that Lennon is maturing as a manager to. In fact I’ll go a bit further and say that the connection between manager and team are evident in the way that they have grown together.

This kind of relationship may go on to achieve great goals in the future so long as it right people remain in place and the circumstances are good for all parties concerned. In the past I have seen Celtic managers hit a wall terms of progress, inevitability of the Scottish game you might say.

When Lennon was in the running for head coach, I was pretty lukewarm about it. As the days a weeks moved on I eventually realised that ‘there was nobody else’.

Shortly after that I was soon urging Celtic that if Lennon was the out and out choice that we needed to make it long term. No more short stays from experienced managers.

I do hope that this will be a long and fruitful relationship because I do believe in what Lennon is doing for this club. Like all managers he will make questionable decisions but he is a good character, excellent speaker and is passionate about the club.

The next step for Neil are Play-offs in the Champions League. As a player he has been here many times but in terms of management he is a novice.

Much is at stake for the Celtic community here, particularly finance. Celtic will receive more just over £1.5M from UEFA just for reaching play-offs but their are greater rewards at the end of the rainbow.

Although Celtic have cut their cloth well financially, the promise of Champions League football until Christmas gives our everyone a huge lift. There is always the chance you get an awful draw now, but at this stage all teams are unpredictable.

Its an exciting time but the job is only half done. A few more games under our belt, including Real Madrid in the USA, should have us on a better footing.

Whatever name pops out if the plastic ball in Nyon you can bet it will be tougher than HJK. No disrespect to Finland’s most decorated team, they played well enough, but even their season starting in April didn’t do us any harm.

I will take any team at all just as long as we get the result we need. It’s like I said, there are no easy draws at this stage of the Champions League.

Hail! Hail!


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