DCSIMG

Sir Alex full of praise for Celtic and Gary Hooper

Neil Lennon does not subscribe to the idea that Celtic have a Hampden hoodoo. Picture: SNS

Neil Lennon does not subscribe to the idea that Celtic have a Hampden hoodoo. Picture: SNS

  • by ALAN PATTULLO
 

RATHER than being motivated by covetous thoughts, Sir Alex Ferguson’s presence at Celtic Park on Tuesday was explained by his role as chief eulogist at Celtic legend Sean Fallon’s funeral the following morning.

It was not the time to discuss the interest Manchester United are reported to have in Victor Wanyama, who scored in the 4-0 win over Dundee United.

Ferguson was, though, complimentary about Celtic’s performance, and gave Gary Hooper his seal of approval. In order to soothe manager Neil Lennon’s concerns, he quickly added that he is not in the market for another striker. Hooper scored two more goals on Tuesday and while Lennon yesterday reported no fresh approach from Norwich City, there is still time for further activity with regards to the player’s future before Thursday night’s transfer window deadline.

“Nothing new on that one,” said Lennon. “I think things will hot up in the next three or four days, it normally does. It will probably happen on Thursday at 11pm and so we’re waiting for it [the window] to close.”

He doesn’t expect Ferguson to be on the line, although they talked for nearly 40 minutes after the game on Tuesday. “He never spoke about Victor, he spoke about Gary,” revealed Lennon. “He said he was well-looked after in the centre-forward area, but he was very impressed with his performance.

“He actually enjoyed the game and won money on us for a change. He normally calls me up to say we cost him a few quid, but I’m delighted to report that he won a few quid on a bet. He took in the game as a guest of the club and came in to see us afterwards and was in great form.”

Ferguson also dropped in at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training academy earlier this season and gave what Lennon described as a “pep talk” before the Champions League group stage kicked-off. “I have huge admiration for him,” Lennon continued. “He’s a great individual and the way he spoke at Sean Fallon’s eulogy was very impressive as well. He came in and spoke to us for 30-40 minutes on football, but, no, he didn’t put any bids in.”

They talked about Celtic’s forthcoming Champions League last 16 tie against Juventus. “But not in any great detail,” said Lennon. “We asked about Paul Pogba, who is now at Juve and who he had at United. He gave us a few steers on that.

“I won’t go into any more of what he said as that will lead you to write he’s tipped us or he’s tipped Juventus, but he thinks it’s pretty even.”

It is another team in black and white stripes who dominate Lennon’s thoughts this weekend. Tomorrow’s Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final clash with St Mirren has re-ignited talk of a treble. It was much discussed last season up until the moment Kilmarnock shocked Celtic by winning the first trophy of the campaign with a late goal by Belgian striker Dieter van Tornhout. Over-confidence was mentioned as one reason why this ambition perished, although Lennon doesn’t agree.

“I am always wary of semi finals, particularly at Hampden when it can be a bit of a surreal atmosphere at times, with the crowd being so far away from the pitch and probably inclement weather conditions, which can make the game a bit more of a leveller as well,” he said.

“You just have to look at the semi-finals this week in England,” he added. “Would you have envisaged Bradford and Swansea being in the final? That’s the unpredictability of it, but the players are in good focus and have played really well in the last two games, so I am hoping they can carry that on into Sunday.”

Lennon dismisses talk of a Hampden hoodoo. However, his side have lost in their last two visits and, of course, there is that Ross County defeat shortly after Lennon took over, in 2010, which still sends shivers down his spine. “It’s been mixed,” he said, with reference to Celtic’s recent record at the national stadium. “Won four, lost four. Listen, we keep getting there and that’s the important thing, whether it be semi-finals or finals. We really would like to get to this one and having lost the last two finals, go one better, but we have to overcome St Mirren first and that won’t be easy.”

The trouble is, many, including Celtic’s own supporters, will be under the impression that it should be straightforward. After all, St Mirren have not scored against Celtic since hitting four goals past them without answer in Tony Mowbray’s last match in charge. Since then, Celtic have scored 22 times against the Paisley side, who, in turn, have failed to find the net at all.

Talk of the treble proved premature last season, though the thought continues to beguile fans of the Parkhead club. Only two Celtic managers have managed to achieve the feat; Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill. “We’ve come close a couple of times,” said Lennon. “When you are going well in all the competitions, the more the talk starts about the treble, but it’s a very difficult thing to do and I know that from experience as a player and the last two seasons as a manager.”

Lennon is hopeful that Kris Commons might return to the squad at Hampden tomorrow, while goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska will again deputise for Fraser Forster, who continues to be hampered by a neck injury. Lennon is confident Forster will return in plenty of time for the forthcoming Champions League clashes.

“Fraser’s not a real concern,” he said. “We hope he will start training again next week. We just don’t want to aggravate it. He is feeling a lot better, but it is probably just too soon for him this weekend.

“There is a lot of inflammation in and around it and we need it to settle down before getting back into it. We know that if he does start training now he could aggravate it again so it is pointless pushing him.”

 

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