Celtic champagne show but southern comfort may quench thirst for Lennon

THE long goodbye?

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Efe Ambrose celebrates in his trademark style
Efe Ambrose celebrates in his trademark style

Or just a breather before Neil Lennon and his Bhoys prepare to do it all over again?

As speculation over the manager's future gathers pace - even though he is doing his utmost to quell the fires - the answer will unfold over the next couple of months.

When Johan Mjallby announced he was off after four years at Lennon's side in the dugout at Parkhead, it added fuel to the growing belief that the main man might also be ready to call time on a job which has allowed him to develop from a rookie to a sought-after winner.

Norwich have him on their shortlist, just as his counterparts did for the PFA manager of the Year award - won last night by Aberdeen's Derek McInnes - after he delivered his third title in as many years for Celtic.

Many Hoops fans can't begin to comprehend why anyone would even contemplate swapping the thrill and exhilaration of Champions League nights for a relegation battle or a struggle to get up from the Championship.

However, there is a shelf-life for everyone, and for their reputation. Lennon will be acutely aware that, following his stock rising so dramatically when he took Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League two years ago, it was in severe danger of plummeting every bit as quickly when they trailed Shakhter Karagandy in the play-offs at the start of this season.

He has confessed his ambitions to manage in England. And he is just as honest when it comes to recognising that continuing to win championships in what is perceived to be a one-horse race carries no currency, while one slip, either in the defence of their titles or in the three-tier qualifying process for the Champions League, could leave his reputation devalued if not bankrupt.

Of course, the big question is: Will Lennon be presented with the challenge he needs at this stage of his development as a manager.

And, if so, will it be here, or elsewhere?

Certainly, watching his Celtic side cuff Inverness for the second time in two months - it was 5-0 at the start of March, and his Bhoys went one better this time - is unlikely to satisfy his competitive juices.

The Highland side were abysmal, even contriving to miss the chance to score a consolation after Virgil van Dijk was harshly adjudged to have brought down Billy Mackay. Fraser Forster - for so long a spectator - dived to his left to block Aaran Doran's well-struck penalty.

Not that it would have made much difference to a game Celtic were always going to stroll following a minute's applause for Rangers legend Sandy Jardine and former Barcelona boss, Tito Vilanova, who both sadly passed away last week.

A first-half double from Anthony Stokes set him up to complete his hat-trick from the spot after Stefan Johnansen had been bundled over in the box.

Leigh Griffiths - reinstated to the starting XI after a couple of games on the bench - provided the assists for Stokes' first two goals, then had the favour returned before the Irishman went off to a well-deserved round of applause.

Griffiths' goal left some Celtic fans in a quandary whether to celebrate.

He had taken to the field to a backdrop of the Green Brigade moralising with a four-tier banner proclaiming: A man must be a Celt on and off the field otherwise he is no value to the club.

Well, whatever he is guilty - or not guilty - of doing in pubs before Edinburgh derbies, what he does on the pitch makes him very valuable, so don't expect Celtic to wash their hands of him any time soon.

With Efe Ambrose and sub Teemu Pukki putting the gloss on the occasion with the final two goals, it pushed Celtic towards their targets of 100 points and 100 goals for the season.

They must win their three remaining matches to hit the ton in terms of points, and are now nine short of three figures for goals.

More immediately, they are also just one point short of matching the best tally ever achieved under Lennon's management, 93, when they won the first of their three titles.

All of which leaves them with plenty to play for as the campaign moves from the games to the awards season.

Lennon can't control who lifts what, but he can do his best to ensure the Celtic fans are winners by providing them with the kind of performances which make it worth turning out.

Yesterday hit the standard he wants to see every time, and said: "It was up there with the best of the season, Hearts in the cup and Motherwell at Fir Park (in December).

"The attitude and appetite of the players was fantastic. And the quality of the football, pace and movement, everything was there to see. The goalkeeper also made a brilliant save from a penalty, so they were all at it."

That included his strikeforce, with Stokes and Griffiths combining for four of the goals while player of the year Kris Commons laid on the final two.

Lennon is delighted Stokes is now reaping the rewards for his hard work, something Commons - who is still pushing to hit the 30-goal mark himself - acknowledged by allowing him to take over spot-kick duties to secure his hat-trick.

And the manager was just as mindful when confronted with the thorny subject of the Green Brigade's apparent finger-pointing in the direction of Griffiths, who faces an SFA charge of racist singing later this month, while a police and club investigation into his behaviour is also ongoing.

The manager said: "I can't comment on the banner because I wasn't sure who it was aimed at, for a start.

"If it was Leigh, then we are going through a process at the minute and will be able to speak more about it when the process finishes. We've all made mistakes.

"I think he will come good. I think he will learn from it, obviously, and he will have a good career here."

If he does go to somewhere like Norwich, Lennon would surely gladly leave all this kind of thing behind.

Football

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