TOMORROW at Parkhead isn’t likely to be one of those occasions they will be talking about for years to come as the two teams with seemingly the least to play for in the Scottish Premier League lock horns.
Of course, their own circumstances could not be more different. Celtic are looking to continue plotting the way to another title. Dundee, meanwhile, arrive at the lair of the champions-elect without a manager and with fading hopes of staying in the top tier. It isn’t the most optimum of times to expect Dundee to collect what would only be a second victory at Celtic Park in 25 years.
It does happen every dozen or so years, at least. The last time Dundee claimed victory, Celtic were already the league champions and could afford to go down 2-0 on the penultimate day of the 2000-2001 season.
The previous occasion came in 1988, when Dundee came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Dave Smith, their poetry-loving manager at the time, was asked that night by Dougie Donnelly on Sportscene to commemorate the feat with a burst of verse and chose a line written by Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”
The odds are even more firmly stacked against Dundee than they were then. Perhaps Ray Farningham should tuck this line away in his memory bank in case the interim manager’s players pull off what would be the shock of the season. It will have come too late for Barry Smith, who has been denied another opportunity to return to his old club. Sacked by the Dens Park club on Tuesday, he can only look on from afar as Dundee strive to exceed their grasp, against a Celtic team expected to contain several changes in personnel.
Neil Lennon expressed some sympathy for Smith yesterday, but he didn’t pretend he knew the full details. “From the outside it looks a bit harsh,” he said. “The timing of it seems a bit strange.
“They [Dundee] seem a bit cast adrift at the minute. It is going to take a monumental effort to turn things around. I hope it does not turn around at our expense on Sunday. He [Smith] had his hands tied at the start of the season because he was not sure which division he would be playing in. It has been a struggle for them but then it was always going to be that way.
“Despite what you think, it is a big step up from the First Division to the Premier League,” he added. “I know Ross County have done well since coming up but they have had a great structure in place for a while.”
Lennon stressed how important it is to be granted time to develop as a manager. He himself has benefitted from this philosophy in a pressurised environment. “You’re looking at a full season, maybe 18 months before it can be considered a manager’s team, so it’s possibly two years before you can judge [a manager’s qualities].
“We get judged in the job after five minutes,” he added. “It’s the knee-jerk capital of football up here. Sometimes I’ve brought a player in and after 45 minutes he’s signed off. The opinion is made, it is set in stone. He could be brilliant for the next 100 games but they will always talk about his debut.”
One player who has not suffered this fate is Tom Rogic, who made his first start for Celtic earlier this month at Inverness and impressed greatly with his athleticism and vision. The Australian midfielder could be in line to make his full home debut tomorrow as Lennon takes the opportunity to make some changes ahead of a busy week.
“I can assure you you will be seeing a lot more of him between now and the end of the season,” said Lennon of Rogic. “He has got a chance of starting on Sunday. We will change it from the other night [against St Johnston] – three or four new faces probably. There won’t be too many changes as we want to win the game and I don’t want to be disrespectful towards Dundee. We want to win the game and win it well. The game’s live on TV. I want the players to show that we are on a good run of form.”
With Gary Hooper’s future still uncertain, there is renewed faith in Anthony Stokes’ ability to become the principal striker at Celtic. He was absent for last Tuesday’s draw with St Johnstone due to the death of a close friend but, according to Lennon, “will definitely feature at the weekend”. Stokes’ contract expires at the end of the season but Lennon stressed that the player’s Celtic future remains in his own hands.
“It is up to him,” said Lennon, with Stokes having reminded supporters what he can do by scoring two goals against Dundee United last weekend.
“If he wants to have a future here then he’s got to bed down and show some consistency,” the manager added. “He has started off in the right vein. I hope the penny has dropped with him.
“I don’t think it is an attitude problem. He has just got to find that level of consistency. He needs to string performances together. It is not rocket science. He knows what I think of him as a boy and as a footballer.”
Striker Georgios Samaras is also expected to play at least some part in tomorrow afternoon’s match after recovering from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the last-16 first-leg Champions League tie against Juventus last midweek. However, Mikael Lustig has been ruled out by Lennon for between two and three weeks with a bruised bone and must therefore be a doubt for the second-leg trip to Turin on Wednesday week.