Up, up and away - but is the top flight Lenny's next destination?

NEIL LENNON boarded a flight bound for Lisbon yesterday, and will take his seat tonight at the Champions League final.

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Lennon flew out to Lisbon for the Champions League final but there seems little chance of being involved in Europe in the immediate future
Lennon flew out to Lisbon for the Champions League final but there seems little chance of being involved in Europe in the immediate future

But, once that's done, in which direction will he be flying, and where will he land to begin the next chapter of a managerial career to which enough baggage is already attached to last most a lifetime?

Generally, when someone vacates the manager's office at Parkhead, his next move is of little interest to the supporters he leaves behind.

Their attention transfers at supersonic speed to who is going to replace him.

While that is certainly occupying the minds of Hoops fans across the globe, most are still intrigued by where Lennon will pitch up next.

That's partly because they are trying to understand why he left in what appeared to be such haste.

But it is also because they still consider him one of their own, and have genuine concern he will be okay out there in the big bad world.

They need not fret. Lenny is a big Bhoy who has ­carefully planned and orchestrated his exit and is only too aware of the pitfalls he must now avoid.

Despite eyebrows being raised when his agent insisted he does not have anything lined up, Lennon is genuinely unemployed.

It is, however, a strategic move. He has put himself on a par with other strong candidates for attractive jobs, such as David Moyes, Malky Mackay and Steve Clarke.

Like them he is not handicapped by having an employer who interested parties would have to approach for permission to speak to him, and who would be seeking compensation.

"I just felt the time was right for me to go," he said.

"I've left the club in a great position from when I took over, both on and off the field. Our reputation in Europe is also very, very good now."

It may be risky to join the ranks of those out of work, but Lennon is prepared to back himself.

With good reason. Four years in charge of Celtic means he is a better manager now than he was when he was given this position as a rookie.

Indeed, one of his predecessors, Gordon Strachan, claimed that, after that job, a man is equipped to run the country, neve r mind a football club.

A brief holiday with his family will provide the breathing space Lennon needs to prepare for whatever lies ahead.

A stint as an analyst at the World Cup with the BBC will provide further shop-window opportunity as his battle to transform the unfair image of a volatile street fighter to intelligent and articulate character is cranked up another notch.

This will make him increasingly attractive to owners and chairmen who will consider his combination of spikiness and game intelligence a potent mixture which could remedy a lot of what ails their clubs.

Lennon will not jump at the first offer that comes his way. He plans to take his time and wait for the right gig.

The penchant for sacking managers has reached epidemic proportions in England, fuelled by desire to get or hold onto a share of the Premier League's riches.

As a keen student of the game, with England his ­specialist subject for the past couple of years, Lennon is aware he is likely to get just one chance to prove winning championships with Celtic is a creditable achievement.

His CV includes impressive results in Europe, but it is unlikely he will be offered a position where he can add to them.

He knows the top clubs will not be among those contacting his people, not until he has made his mark in England, at any rate. So what would be the best entry level for him?

HAVING spent the bulk of the last 13 years winning trophies, as a player and a manager, taking charge of a team fighting relegation would not play to his strengths.

Despite having spent the past couple of seasons jousting with the likes of Barcelona and AC Milan in the Champions League, Lennon would not be averse to dropping down to the ­Championship, provided it was with a club that could match his ambition to get up to and be competitive in the Premier League.

He would need assurances that the club is in it for the long-term, and not simply looking for a quick fix, as is becoming the fashion.

The budgetary aspect of any new job would, of course, be important, given this was one of the main reasons he decided he could no longer operate as effectively as he wanted to do at Celtic.

That said, it would be a very different challenge to try to get a team promoted over a 46-game league season rather than facing the acute pressure of a six-game qualification and play-off campaign to get into the Champions League.

With championship success all but guaranteed in the SPFL, that, ostensibly, is what life for a Celtic manager now equates to.

With the resources to meet this challenge being diluted, it no longer floated Lennon's boat, and he elected to bail out with three titles and a two Scottish Cup wins to his credit, plus that astonishing run to the last 16 of the Champions League which puts the gold star on his CV.

Wherever his career takes him next, there will without doubt remain a bit of the Lurgan Bhoy embedded at ­Celtic Park.

His down-time will let him come to terms with the fact the club's name is no longer affixed to his own. But, for now, he still refers to Celtic as 'we'.

"Celtic did everything for me," he acknowledged. "They gave me the opportunity when a lot of people thought I wasn't ready.

"From where we were to where we are now is incredible. We're in great health, and I can't thank the players enough, as well. To the fans, I'd just like to say thank you.

"I probably wouldn't have been in the job so long if it wasn't for the support I had. Leaving Celtic is a huge wrench, but, in my mind, I will never leave."

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