THRILLED Neil Lennon last night insisted his reshaped Celtic side had overcome a massive Perth hurdle in their quest to grab a first SPL crown in three years.
The Parkhead manager mixed joy with relief after midfield dynamo Beram Kayal’s first goal for the club eeked out a priceless 1-0 away win over St Johnstone.
Kayal’s strike just 10 seconds before the half-time break opened a five-point lead for Lennon’s team over Rangers ahead of their rivals’ trip to face Aberdeen tonight.
But the boss was focused purely on the way his team managed to negotiate one of the trickiest tests they will face during the run-in.
Lennon had huge concerns about taking his team to the awful pitch in Perth and was fully aware there was potential for a slip at a vital stage in the campaign. But the gaffer had cause for celebration as he headed back down the A9 with maximum points in the kit hamper and the prospect of a decent night’s sleep.
Lennon said: “This game was giving me a few sleepless nights but we got through it okay.
“It was a banana skin with the pitch and the kick-off time, so I was very pleased to get the win and the first-half display was excellent.
“I wouldn’t have been too unhappy had we gone in at 0-0 but the goal from Beram was a huge bonus.
“We were professional in the second half without being at our best and it’s a huge result in the context of the season. The pitch was a concern coming here.
“It’s sticky and this is a difficult place to come and win because St Johnstone have a good home record.
“We could have been comfortable winners on the night and I’m so pleased with the attitude. As I said, this game was a concern. Listen, there will be more of them to come.
We have to go to Tynecastle, we have to play Dundee United, we have Kilmarnock twice and we’ll have to go to Inverness. But their playing surfaces might suit us a little better than that one.
“This was a huge concern and also posed a selection headache so I’m glad that it has paid off.”
Lennon alluded to the changes on the day before the encounter as he surveyed his options for Perth.
Having flopped badly on a dreadful surface at Motherwell earlier this year, the Hoops gaffer knew he’d have to ditch a crisp passing style.
Nevertheless, the Celtic fans were shocked as they arrived in Perth to find a front two of Georgios Samaras and Daryl Murphy leading the line.
With Gary Hooper suffering an injury, Anthony Stokes was benched as Lennon went direct and handed Republic of Ireland star Murphy a first start since Boxing Day.
Murphy responded to the call and Lennon said: “We felt the front two could be a handful and they were. I wanted us to play further up.
“It’s difficult to pass from the back or through midfield. You can’t take chances and we learned from the Motherwell experience.
“I wouldn’t say that pitch is as bad as Fir Park but they did their best and it played okay considering there was a game at the weekend.
“Murphy and Samaras were very strong for us and they gave us a platform to get up and play in the right areas of a difficult pitch.
“Murphy, in particular, was excellent and he just needs a goal. I felt his performance deserved a goal and the midfield were strong and full of drive and commitment. It was another clean sheet too so a very good night.”
For Lennon, it was an occasion where he was able to find his feet again in the technical area.
Having been stuck in the stands for the previous five matches serving a ban, the Parkhead manager was back in the touchline trenches with his troops.
Lennon kept his cool throughout the encounter and didn’t lose the plot once as his team kept his spirits up and his head clear.
When asked if his calm approach was pre-meditated in light of past behaviour that he has assessed, he smiled: “Not really. There were a couple of incidents in the game but the boys kept a lead on me! It was great to be back in the dugout.
“It got a wee bit fraught at 1-0 and I was a bit worried that St Johnstone could equalise. But I was really pleased with the display and the boys have answered questions.”
Lennon, meanwhile, took time to say a thank-you to the fans for their backing during the contest.
Despite a kick-off time that caused big problems for the travelling supporters in getting to Perth, both stands at either end were packed with visiting fans.
Lennon’s name was chanted throughout the contest and he was able to smile about the incident that halted the match just seconds after referee Ian Brines got it started.
A dozen balls were launched onto the playing surface by fans unhappy at the fact the match was kicking-off at 6pm at the request of broadcaster ESPN.
A banner behind one of the goals read: “Fans not TV. Balls to 6pm.”
Lennon clocked the reasons for the protest but was delighted there was nothing but backing and chanting for him and his players to carry the team over the line.
He said: “I wasn’t happy. We’d started well! I was trying to work it out. There must have been some writing on the ball about not being happy about the kick-off time.
“But the fans have been amazing.
To me personally and they took to this kick-off time quickly.
“Their support is invaluable and we’ll need them for the rest of the season as it’s going to get tense.”
Meanwhile, Saints’ Chris Millar hopes quick thinking has saved his Scottish Cup semi-final dream.
The midfielder faces a fitness fight to make Saturday’s clash with Motherwell at Hampden after sustaining a groin injury in last night’s defeat.
Millar came on as a second-half sub but was off before the finish having felt a slight twinge.
Boss Derek McInnes had already committed his other two subs and Saints were left with just 10 men for the final stages when he walked off for the treatment room.
Millar said: “I just felt the groin tighten and came off. There was no pull or tear, just a tightness but I’ve been there before.
“This is going to be one of the biggest games of my career and I want to play. It’ll just have to be rest, ice, rest, ice.
“I’d be gutted to miss out. It would be a killer.”