NEIL LENNON last night savoured his second successive Scottish Premier League championship triumph as Celtic manager and urged his club’s board to do all they can to keep his title-winning squad intact.
Celtic retained their crown with four games to spare, a 4-1 home win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle opening up an unassailable 15 point lead over nearest challengers Motherwell.
Lennon now hopes to complete a memorable campaign, in which he led Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League, by winning the Scottish Cup final against Hibs at Hampden on 26 May. But he has already set his sights on next season and says he views the retention of key players in his current squad as just as important as any new signings he is able to make over the summer.
Gary Hooper, who scored twice in yesterday’s title-clinching victory to take his goals tally for the season to 28, is among those expected to attract interest from clubs in the English Premier League and beyond over the next few months.
The English striker refused to commit himself to remaining at Celtic when he conducted a television interview on the pitch during the celebrations, saying only “We’ll see, won’t we?”.
But Lennon revealed he is hopeful of holding on to Hooper’s services after proposing terms for a new contract offer for the player to the Celtic board.
“I have made my submission to the board regarding Gary,” said Lennon. “So we will do what we can to keep him. I still think there is a chance he will stay. That’s my feeling, although I’ve not really spoken to his agent lately at length. I would like to keep Gary here, because he is such an important player. Goalscorers are at a premium and he is only 24. He is one of those players who we feel is really settled here and who feels at home. He is a fantastic player.
“I don’t want to lose the core of the team, because for me they have all been magnificent. The three boys who scored today – Gary, Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras – have been brilliant for me since I came in.
“Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew, James Forrest, Adam Matthews, Victor Wanyama and Beram Kayal have all contributed greatly. Kelvin Wilson is another. He’s had a fantastic season and has really settled in to what we have asked of him.
“It is unfair to single anyone out, because as a group they have been great together. I think what they have achieved this year has shown they can compete against the best, while still being pretty strong domestically. That’s what we want to achieve every year.
“We haven’t pushed the button on anything yet in terms of new signings. We are still in the process of trying to identify players who will make us better in the areas which need strengthened and who fit the monetary bracket we are working in.
“We don’t want to break the wage structure because one thing which is really important is team spirit. These players, who are not on huge amounts of money, have really raised the bar here over the last couple of years.
“I’m very proud of them today. It was indicative of the way they have played, not just this season but over the three years I have been in charge. When they really put their minds to it, they can show what a great team they are. The club are in a good financial position after the Champions League this season and what we would like again is to reach the group stage again next season.”
Although the 44th title win of Celtic’s history was widely regarded as a certainty even before a ball was kicked, following the fall of Rangers into the Third Division, Lennon insists he and his players should relish it as they would any other.
“It’s pretty special,” added Lennon. “I never take these things for granted. I know from my own personal experiences over the years that winning the championship is the ultimate goal for any professional in football.
“I hope the players enjoy the moment. It’s just as good as last season, if not better. It’s special for me, but every title is the same. You don’t appreciate it as much when you are playing.
“Then you look back on your career and think ‘that was pretty good’. During the 1990s, this club was starved of success. Martin O’Neill came in and sort of revolutionised what was going on here. He brought a winning mentality to the club and Gordon Strachan carried that on.
“I think that’s the eight championship in 13 years, so the club is in rude health now. We have developed a domination of the championship now, which is fantastic.
“I’d tell the players to enjoy today, enjoy tonight, then enjoy tomorrow when they reflect on what’s been achieved. It goes so quickly. In football your season goes quickly, your career goes quickly.
“Sometimes. when you are young and in your 20s it passes you by very quickly and I want them to appreciate what they have done because they might never do it again.”
Lennon will now give the bulk of his first-team players a holiday, staggered over the next two weeks, shuffling his squad for their next two SPL matches against Motherwell and Ross County before fully starting his preparations for the Scottish Cup Final.
“It’s important to give them a break now, because some of them will only get three weeks off this summer before we come back to get ready for the first Champions League qualifier in the middle of July,” he said.
“So they will get a holiday now, then we’ll get everyone back for the last two SPL games (against St Johnstone and Dundee United) going into the cup final.”
Lennon had to watch yesterday’s match from the stand as he began his contentious three-match touchline ban imposed by an SFA Judicial Panel following his hearing into directing foul and abusive language at St Mirren captain Jim Goodwin.
He then had to wait until 15 minutes after the final whistle before being allowed to come on to the pitch, address the Celtic fans and join in the celebrations with his players.
But it did not dilute his enjoyment of a scintillating second-half display by his team in which Kris Commons was once again the stand-out performer.
“I thought we were okay in the first half but we didn’t pass the ball quickly enough for my liking,” reflected Lennon. “In the second half, we had to change the system after losing James Forrest to injury.
“Kris went into a more central role and he really made things happen for us. He has had a brilliant season. He has been at the forefront for the majority of the season.
“He is so important to us with the way he plays. He is happy and he has looked after himself really well. He had a good pre-season and that stood him in good stead for what he has produced this year.”