THE sudden loss of a man who he had, like so many people that Billy McNeill crossed paths with during his remarkable life, come to consider as a friend as well as a close confidante and source of invaluable support struck Neil Lennon hard this week.

“I was hit by a real wave of emotion and nostalgia myself when I heard the news on Tuesday morning,” said Lennon as he spoke publicly about the passing of the legendary former Celtic captain at Lennoxtown yesterday. “It’s amazing because I didn’t think it would hit me as hard as it did. I cried.

“We have lost an icon. I don’t think he knew how much he meant to so many people. I don’t think he realised what an impact or influence he had on so many people at this club, anyway. We’re in mourning.”

Lennon may not have worked with McNeill in a professional capacity either at Manchester City, where he started his career, or Celtic, where has served as a player, coach and manager over the past two decades.

However, he was still influenced enormously by an individual who appreciated better than perhaps anyone else the demands when you donned a green and white jersey and the pressures when you stepped into the dugout.

Would Lennon even be in the position he is now - in interim charge of the double treble winners until the end of the season and hoping to do well enough to be appointed on a permanent basis for a second time in the summer - without his encouragement and guidance?

The Northern Irishman endured a torrid start to his managerial career after succeeding Tony Mowbray nine years ago; he suffered multiple failures in Europe, was unable to prevent his side squandering a lead in the league and surrendering the Scottish title to Rangers as a result and struggled to convince sceptical supporters he was the right man to lead them forward.

McNeill, who himself experienced fluctuating fortunes during his two spells in charge, understood exactly what he was enduring and never once wavered in his backing.

“Billy gave me a lot of great advice when I was doing this job the first time around, particularly through the bad times,” said Lennon. “In the good times, he’d stay away and let you enjoy it. In the bad times, he’d come in and give you a lot of support.

“In that wee room at Celtic Park, the manager’s room, he’d wait until everyone had gone away and he’d pop his head in for five minutes to have a chat. If you had an adverse result, or a defeat, he’d pop in and ask how you were doing, what you thought. He’d give some advice on what to look out for and what not to look for, tell me what I was doing well and what I could do better. He didn’t have to do it and I cherish those moments.”

Their encounters clearly had the desired effect - the former midfielder overcame his exacting apprenticeship and went on to enjoy great success both domestically and in Europe.

Being able to emulate McNeill’s greatest feat as manager – the League Championship and Scottish Cup double he famously delivered in the Glasgow outfit’s centenary year in 1988 – in 2013 was something that gave Lennon immense pride. After all, he joined exalted company doing so.

“One of the biggest highlights of my career here was winning the double because I became part of a select band who had played and won a double and managed and won a double,” he said. “I was in that bracket with Billy and, for me, that was worth more than any numeration or financial gain could ever give you. To be in that select band of people. Is it humbling? Absolutely.”

The first Celtic game since the passing of McNeill against Kilmarnock at Parkhead in the Ladbrokes Premiership tomorrow is sure to be a hugely emotional one for Lennon, who will lay a wreath at the statue of their Greatest Ever Captain along with members of his squad before kick-off.

Scott Brown and his team mates are attempting to complete an achievement that no other team in Scottish football history has ever done – a third consecutive clean sweep of domestic silverware - and victory this weekend would go a long way towards completing the second leg of it.

A win tomorrow could even, if their city rivals fail to overcome Aberdeen at Ibrox on Sunday, sew it up.

Lennon is hoping his charges channel the energy of the occasion positively and us the strength of feeling in the stands and the streets to their advantage both tomorrow and in the coming weeks. He believes McNeill wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

“It is going to be emotional on Saturday and I think the players should thrive on it,” he said. “For me, it will probably encompass what Celtic is all about and the players should embrace that. Obviously, they have to focus on beating a very good team and we have a job to do, but also enjoying the emotion, the tributes, the noise and the colour.

“It’s a sad day and a sad week, but this is an opportunity to celebrate Billy for what he really was. Billy would have wanted the noise, that’s what he wanted Celtic Park always to be. That meant as much to him as anything else and we will try to work and endeavour to play some really great football. I think the players should embrace that, enjoy it and revel in it.

“I got all nostaligic the other day thinking about him the other day. Thinking about when I was a kid and what he meant and the players meant growing up. It’s such a huge loss in more ways than one. He is the standard bearer and he is the greatest.”