CELTIC manager Neil Lennon has admitted he indulged in some pre-match subterfuge in a bid to gain an advantage over his Dundee United counterpart and former team-mate Jackie McNamara in yesterday’s Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden.
Lennon’s deliberate misinformation at Friday’s media conference, when he indicated that neither James Forrest nor Kris Commons would be fit enough to face United, reaped its intended dividend when both players had a pivotal role in Celtic’s thrilling 4-3 extra-time victory.
Commons scored twice, while Forrest set up the 104th minute winning goal for Anthony Stokes which enabled the Scottish champions to book a return to Hampden for the final against Hibernian on 26 May. Asked after yesterday’s game about his Friday response to questions regarding Forrest and Commons, Lennon replied: “I lied. I wanted to keep James under wraps, I didn’t want to give anything away.
“We knew he was fit and we knew he would be a surprise package in there for Dundee United. That turned out to be the case. For me, James is just a brilliant player. He has been ravaged by injuries and it’s great to have him fit again. His ball for the fourth goal today was sensational and he could have had a couple of goals himself. In Forrest and Commons, we had players who can win any game.”
The final whistle brought a mixture of emotions for Lennon, who had suffered defeat on his three previous visits to Hampden as Celtic manager but who is now on course to lead his club to their first league and Scottish Cup double for six years.
“There is relief but I’m also thrilled,” said Lennon. “We’ve had a monumental season up until now. We are a point away from winning the SPL title, we reached the last 16 of the Champions League, we just fell short in the League Cup semi-final and now we are in another cup final. I thought we performed heroically today. Some of the players are dead on their feet at the minute. Mentally and physically it has been really tough for some of them.
“I’m glad to get over the winning line at Hampden for the first time in a while. It would be pretty special for the players to do the double now. We know Hibs have their own incentives to win it and their own experience of losing last year’s final might stand them in good stead this time.
“I came to Hampden on Saturday for the Hibs-Falkirk semi-final and actually arrived at the end of the first half when there were loads of Hibs fans streaming out. They will be sorry they missed what was a fantastic performance from their team in the second half.
“So it is a very interesting cup final for lots of reasons. But for us today, winning was pivotal because otherwise the season might just have petered out and that’s not going to happen now.”
It remains to be seen if the Scottish Cup final could be a Celtic swansong for their matchwinner yesterday. Lennon revealed he has all but decided whether or not to extend Stokes’ contract beyond this summer but has yet to inform the Irish striker.
“In my mind, I have already made the call on that one,” said Lennon. “I haven’t told Anthony that yet. What will help him is to get consistency in his performances. In some of the games since he came back from injury this season, he has been fantastic. In others, he has been below average.
“But he has got a great work ethic about him at times. When he is in the mood, he has goals in him and he was there today with the most important goal of the season for us up until now. That will have done his chances (of a new contract) no harm at all.”
The only negative aspect of yesterday’s trip to Hampden for Lennon was the bookings collected by midfielders Victor Wanyama and Beram Kayal, both triggering suspensions which mean they will miss out on the final against Hibs.
“Wanyama has been sensational this season, so it will be a real shame for the kid,” reflected Lennon. “I think he knew he was going to miss the final. Even when we scored the fourth goal, it was resonating with him a little bit.
“It’s a blow because he is a very important performer for us. For Beram, tackling is part of his game. It’s a shame for both of them. So we will obviously have a team to pick and things to think about without them for the final.”