Neil Lennon: Celtic return brings reunion with old friends, trepidation and thrills

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Highlights: Heart of Midlothian 1-2 Celtic

The God of Scottish football giveth and giveth and giveth again. His fondness for the bonkers is truly bountiful. His appetite for the surreal is inexhaustible.

There Neil Lennon stood, minutes into injury time against Hearts on Wednesday, flapping his arms madly, waving his new team forward in pursuit of a winner against a side whose energy tanks were emptying but whose spirit never did.

A draw would have been no disaster for Lennon, but it would have been deflating, it would have opened the door to Rangers, who were doing Dundee in cold blood at Ibrox. An eight-point gap was about to become a six-point gap. The phrase 'title race' was beginning to drift back into the mind. The thought that 'Brendan Rodgers would have won this' was not far away.

And then, drama. In all honesty, given what has happened in these madcap last few days, we should almost have expected it all to be rounded off in the most thunderous way. Odsonne Edouard's goal was met with the kind of noise that might have carried all the way to Leicester, where Rodgers now resides.

Winners are always riotously celebrated in games like this, but there was almost an extra euphoria when Edouard scored. Those Celtic fans would have been rejoicing for many reasons, but Rodgers and an answer to what some of them - many of them - see as his betrayal of their club would have been part of it.

Butterflies & banners

In the beginning, before the hubbub and hoopla, Lennon might have felt like some scientific experiment being observed, sitting, as he was, in the away dugout before kick-off with a dozen orange-bibbed photographers looking at him, a battalion of yellow-vested stewards surrounding him, every reporter in the place watching his every move and every Celtic fan chanting his name.

Re-enter the hero, to the very place that caused him such trauma in the autumn, on a night when the words 'Hang Neil Lennon' were daubed on a wall outside Tynecastle, a night when Lennon, as Hibs manager, was not just hit by a coin but was also the target of sectarian - or as he called it "racist" - chanting.

Lennon was back with just enough time to get the N and the L embroidered on his coat. The stock phrase in these cases is 'you couldn't make it up' - but you could. In this country? Absolutely, you could.

He admitted to having butterflies before this game. He said he had big shoes to fill in replacing Rodgers. The visitors packed behind one goal might have begged to differ on that one. Edouard's moment at the end gave them all a chance to celebrate and mock - 'Brendan Who?'.

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'Never a Celt. Always a fraud' - Celtic fans unveil Rodgers banner

Would Rodgers have been watching this? Who's to say. The man appears to have undergone a personality transplant in the last few days, from an undying Celt to a sly old Fox prepared to "give his life" for his new club Leicester City, so it's hard to know whether the manager formerly known as Saint Brendan would have tuned in.

Watching or not, there was a message for him in any case. Not a tifo as such. Not one of those spectaculars that tend to get unveiled by the Celtic support on some of the bigger days and nights. No, this is more basic but no less heartfelt, a riot of indignation and hurt.

"You Traded Immortality For Mediocrity. Never A Celt. Always A Fraud".

Heartfelt for sure. Indignant, unquestionably. In taking the moral high ground in the business of their former manager, some visiting supporters then belted out a few tunes about the IRA and it later emerged Police Scotland were looking into reports of coin throwing. Lennon, no doubt, would have wished the fans hadn't bothered with either. On his first night back, they might have given it a rest.

'No room for a twist, right..? Wrong'

This was always going to be an enormous night for Lennon and it became all the more significant when news started to come through from Ibrox that Rangers were taking Dundee to the cleaners. A goal, then another, then another. Three points already secured and just 23 minutes played. A little reminder to Celtic folk that Rangers haven't gone away just yet.

When Hearts are in the mood they can be a nightmare to play against. Frenzied and physical. Swarming all over you like there's no tomorrow. They had Lennon looking on quietly and nervously early on. Sean Clare, the double-handful that was Uche Ikpeazu, and Steven Naismith all went close.

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'I felt like I could fly' - Lennon lifted by Celtic's late winner

At one point, after some anxiety at the back, Lennon turned to his own dugout and mouthed: "You can't defend like that". Celtic were not themselves. Hearts wouldn't allow it. Until they did. On the counter-attack, Celtic scored.

When James Forrest applied the finish, it was the final flourish of a goal that showed Celtic at their best on a night when they rarely hit that mark. The feeling that the new/old manager was going to get off to a flier only hardened when Jamie Brandon went elbow-first into Jeremy Toljan and got sent-off. A one-goal lead, a one-man advantage and Naismith the Hearts talisman injured and unavailable for the second half? No room for a twist now, right?

Wrong. Rodgers was not here in body, but there was a little bit of him here in the addled mind of his former goalkeeper. Scott Bain dallied on the ball. Caught in the parallel universe of Rodgers' slavish adherence to playing out from the back and Lennon's more pragmatic style, he gave a pass he shouldn't have given to Kristoffer Ajer, who lost control and brought down Arnaud Djoum.

Penalty. Goal. Tynecastle in raptures. Craig Levein said later that experience has told him to never count his chickens when defending a point against Celtic, but he was counting them none the less. Hearts had been excellent, but the force of the visitors' will nailed them in the end.

Lennon said he wasn't happy with a lot of what he saw from his team. "Poor," he said. "Ponderous. Sloppy for the goal. Made life difficult for ourselves." Then he breathed a sigh, spoke of his relief and joy, and said that when Edouard scored he felt so high he thought he could fly.

On Sunday, he takes his new club back to his old club for a Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road. "A bit of trepidation," said Lennon about the prospect. Trepidation and thrills. Lennon revels in days like these.