THE pre-match huddle became a public cuddle as Neil Lennon gathered his players around him minutes after the tense 2-1 League Cup extra-time win over Dunfermline at Parkhead.

It took a James Forrest strike in 114 minutes to settle a nervy encounter on an afternoon where the holders flirted with their second tournament exit in four days after the Champions League flop against Cluj on Tuesday.

The potential banana skin of a penalty-kick decider was looming into focus before the 28-year-old Scotland international winger settled the tie against a hard-working, well-organised Championship outfit.

Mikey Johnston had given the home side the advantage, but that had been nullified by Tom Beadling’s leveller to forced the encounter into an extra 30 minutes. With the clock ticking down, substitute Forrest banged in the winner.

Lennon pulled his players around him in an impromptu huddle to tell them exactly what he thought of their performance.

The Hoops manager, speaking to the Daily Record, said: “I’m really proud of the players. I know a few of them weren’t at their best, but that was understandable.

“I’ve been in that situation myself after Champions League games – you can be a bit leggy.

“But we dominated the game, created loads of chances and didn’t deserve to go to extra-time.

“It was a really good test and you have to give Dunfermline credit. They came with a game plan and defended brilliantly.

“I wouldn’t say we struggled, but we didn’t cut them open as much as I’d have liked. When you’re faced with a bank of 10 players it can be difficult to break down.

“But I pulled the boys together at the end and told them I was proud of them. That was a stiff test of character, a real examination.

“They won’t see it the way I see it. But I played in a great Celtic side who had days like that.

“I remember a penalty shoot-out against Partick Thistle when I was a player here. And I got knocked out by Morton as manager.

“We’ve come through a big examination, psychologically rather than in a football sense.

“I was a bit worried near the end because penalties is a lottery. So, I’m grateful to Jamesie.”

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