When Neil Lennon joined Celtic, he said that he had watched the club being bullied by Rangers too many times over the previous miserable decade and vowed ‘not on my watch’.
Lennon left Celtic at the end of the 2006/07 season and never played with Scott Brown who signed that summer.
Celtic, however, wouldn’t be getting simply a replacement midfielder, but another leader and future captain whose will to win would drive the club on through sometimes rocky roads.
Between the pair, they have been at the heart of Celtic’s domination of Scottish football for the best part of two decades.
With one once again in the dugout and one on the pitch, the start of the season saw both face their critics. Lennon wasn’t the glamour name that fans had hoped for, while there were concerns that Brown’s legs couldn’t carry him through many more battles at the top of the game.
A bad night for both at home against Cluj had the snipers out in full force. There would be hardly any point in giving Lennon more money to spend in the transfer market because he doesn’t know how to organise a team, while Brown simply faced more of the same criticism that he’s overcome in the last 12 years, having been written off more than once along the way.
Rumours spread of a fallout between the pair with rumblings of discontent behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the team got on with its business. The ‘must-win’ run of four games against Hearts, AIK and Steven Gerrard’s high-flying marvels were duly won.
Brown led by example. As the camera panned in on him psyching himself and the team up, you knew that there was going to be only one winner that day. Lennon’s only other domestic defeat had come at Ibrox, following league title celebrations, but there was no way there would be a repeat.
New signings came to the fore. Bolingoli and Elhamed both shrugged off hefty smacks to put in superb performances, while Christopher Jullien emerged as the rock at the heart of defence we hoped we’d signed.
When Lennon celebrated Henrik Larsson’s 50th goal of the season at Ibrox in 2001, he did it in a team of captains, alongside the likes of Sutton, Thompson and McNamara. With an influx of new faces, a new team of leaders is emerging in the Hoops to stand alongside Brown.
Last night, back in his homeland, Jullien again came to the fore. Celtic were superb throughout, even while a couple of players didn’t quite hit the heights they were capable of.
Ajer gave away a daft penalty, but didn’t crumple. A man who celebrates winning a tackle as much as scoring a goal, it’s a mistake the youngster will learn from. The French weren’t impressed with Edouard, but their dismissal of him may come back to bite them in the home fixture.
In midfield, Brown and McGregor worked in perfect tandem and some of Celtic’s intricate passing was as swift as it was incisive.
Amid the skillful interplay, the battling qualities were there in abundance too, epitomised by Jonny Hayes.
Hayes is a throwback of a footballer. A good, honest working class guy who could quite easily live off porridge in a drawer, a piece ‘n’ sugar and some tinned meat. An Alf Tupper type of footballer who would play a game after a nightshift and grab a fish supper on the way back home after scoring at Ibrox.
His tackle on Hamari Traore was a perfect illustration of players ready to run through brick walls for Celtic and for Lennon. Perfectly executed, it left his opponent in a crumpled heap.
When Traore sprang back to life after the magic sponge had been successfully applied, the no nonsense Irishman let him know he was having none of his loudmouth guff.
Traore wasn’t the first nor the last Rennes player to try to con the ref. In a “bizarre” performance, as Neil Lennon put it, the whistler had a night where he managed see things that weren’t there, while missing the obvious, such as a stamp on Christie’s instep in the box.
The worst was yet to come, though, with the sending off of Bayo. Rarely has a referee caved so humiliatingly in the face of complaints from a team. The French media may have been as dismissive of Celtic in the aftermatch as their counterparts here before the match, but Lennon and his players won’t care much for their opinion.
Rennes maybe took the Oscar nominations but Celtic took heart for the rest of the European campaign, if not the three points their performance against a supposedly superior opponent undoubtedly deserved.