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Neil Lennon: Criticism of Craig Levein is ‘complete rubbish’

Celtic manager Neil Lennon yesterday launched a stout defence of Hearts counterpart Craig Levein, dismissing the criticism of the latter by BBC pundit, newspaper columnist and former Hearts midfielder Michael Stewart.

Lennon cannot fathom why, after only five Premiership fixtures – albeit with Hearts at the foot of the table – the club’s fans are demonstrating against Levein and calling for his head.

The pair clashed regularly before, during and after Edinburgh derbies while Lennon was in charge of Hibernian but they share a mutual respect and the Irishman is in no doubt that Levein will effect a reversal of fortunes at Tynecastle sooner rather than later and that those currently demanding his resignation will be cheering him on.

“I don’t know where the thinking comes from,” he said. “Last year Craig reached a cup final, a semi-final and secured a top-six finish; he had a good season but I heard one pundit saying there had been a deterioration for a long time. It’s just complete rubbish.

“He has had four or five games where he hasn’t had his best team on the pitch, has had a couple of big players injured and, like he said last week, he’s still only six points off fourth place.

“There seems to be this sort of storyline that evolves and then people believe it and believe it and believe it. Obviously, both Craig and [Hibs manager] Paul [Heckingbottom] need results and it will be interesting watching [tomorrow’s Edinburgh derby] but I think it’s far too early to talk about managers losing their jobs.

“It should be a fascinating match; the Edinburgh derby always is. There is obviously a little more spice at the minute because both teams haven’t started the season well but I’m pretty sure that will change as we go along.”

Lennon also saluted Hearts owner Ann Budge for issuing a statement in midweek backing Levein. “They have a good relationship,” he said. “I don’t think Anne is naive in any way; she’s done a marvellous job there. She knows the value of Craig and the personality of the man and also that he will get it right.

“You build up an understanding and there is a trust there. I’ve had that with [Celtic chief executive] Peter Lawwell for a long, long time. Even when I left the club it was on the best of terms with maybe the objective of being lucky enough to come back and that’s how it’s panned out.”

Angelo Alessio suffered similar criticism when he replaced Steve Clarke at Kilmarnock – who visit Parkhead tomorrow – and Lennon argued that was equally unjustifiable.

“It’s been a difficult start for him but it always is when you come in and fill big shoes,” he said. “Angelo had huge shoes to fill in terms of what Steve did at Rugby Park. Now he’s seeing the results starting to blossom for him and we always have a difficult game against Kilmarnock.

“The last couple of seasons have been meteoric for them so there is a good mentality there and we’ll have to play well to win. You don’t take any notice of snap judgments, what with public perception the way it is now. This guy has a good pedigree and, for me, [Kilmarnock chairman] Billy Bowie is a very shrewd guy.

“His appointment of Clarky was a masterstroke and this guy could turn out to be the same. There are always knee-jerk reactions in football now. Managers are under pressure after three or four matches and it’s crazy. Then it flips just like that and all of a sudden everything is rosy again; that’s not real.”

Lennon also revealed Scotland full-back Greg Taylor, signed from Kilmarnock during the summer, will make his debut against his former club.

Meanwhile, Kilmarnock midfielder Mohamed El Makrini is looking forward to adding Celtic Park to the long list of top grounds he has played at when Alessio’s men visit the champions. El Makrini joined Killie from Dutch side Roda JC in the summer and scored his first goal for the club in last weekend’s 2-0 victory over Hibernian.

The 32-year-old has also played for Den Bosch, SC Cambuur and Odense in a long career and has become used to coming up against big clubs in grand venues.

Dutchman El Makrini said: “It’s a great game for me. In my history I have played a lot of big games. In Denmark, obviously against FC Copenhagen and Brondby, and in Holland against Ajax, PSV and 

“These games are nice games to play. And we feel good, we have good results, so we go with a lot of confidence to Celtic.It’s a great stadium with a lot of fans so we will see how it goes. I like these games and I’m looking forward to it.

Celtic and Rangers are big names in Holland. These are the games you want to play in.”

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