Celtic manager Neil Lennon said overcoming Shakhter Karagandy to book a place in the Champions League was the greatest achievement of his trophy-laden career in football.
Celtic needed goals from Kris Commons, Georgios Samaras and a dramatic stoppage time strike from James Forrest to clinch a 3-0 victory at Celtic Park in the second leg of their play-off match that sent them through on aggregate following a 2-0 defeat in Kazakhstan.
Last season Lennon, who won a host of trophies as a player and now manager at Celtic, led his side to the last 16 of Europe’s elite competition following famous wins over Spartak Moscow and Barcelona.
However, after losing influential midfielder Victor Wanyama, last season’s top-scorer Gary Hooper and key defender Kelvin Wilson in the transfer window the Celtic manager says the win over the Kazakhstan minnows tops the lot.
“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done in football. The last three months have all been about preparation for this,” he said.
“I’m relieved and there is a good sense of pride in what we have achieved tonight considering we lost Hooper, Wanyama and Wilson who were the spine of the team really for the last year-and-a-half.
“We lost three very important players and it’s been difficult to replace them. Coming back from a two-goal deficit down tonight as well just makes the players’ performance and efforts even more remarkable.
“I cannot speak highly enough about the players in that dressing room tonight; they were just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. I’m not really sure they get the credit they deserve at times.
“The night required patience but there was a real willingness amongst the players to do that.
“When you have Samaras, Forrest and Stokes in the mood anything can happen and we got what we deserved. We dominated the first half and dominated the second and, contrary to some reports, we actually dominated large parts of the first tie as well.
“We didn’t get what we deserved then but we certainly did tonight.”
A clearly furious Lennon also hit out at the level of criticism that was directed towards his club following their 2-0 defeat in the first leg in Kazakhstan and slammed the negativity that he claims surrounds Scottish football.
“I’m angry as well at the reaction from the first leg towards the team. The environment here is all wrong - there is just far too much negativity,” Lennon, who has led his side to the group stages for the second successive season, said.
“These players have given everything for the club and put Scottish football in a really good light last year.
“I wouldn’t say they had a bad night last week, they just didn’t take their chances. They created plenty but yet the hysteria afterwards was disgusting.
“It may come from some sections of the media, it may even come from some quarters of our own support but the knee-jerk reaction to one average performance is baffling to me.
“It just makes the job impossible at times. Managers nowadays get no respect for their position. They are analysed and scrutinised about everything they say.
“There are times that I call a game as I see it in the cold light of day and I still get slaughtered for it and people try to humiliate you and I think that’s totally wrong and it doesn’t do the prestige of the job justice.
“There’s so much of an imbalance and there’s huge pressure on myself. We don’t have a divine right to be in the Champions League.
“We’ve played three qualifiers and they are so difficult to overcome and I don’t think people appreciate that.
“This club is not a laughing stock for anyone. We will all get pats on the back for this win but it is all superficial to me.”