FOR some of Celtic’s players, there is an added incentive on offer if they can wrap up the club’s third successive league title within the next eight days.
Manager Neil Lennon is ready to offer early holidays to a selection of his key personnel once Celtic have collected the seven points they currently need from their remaining nine Premiership fixtures to be crowned champions once again.
As it stands, victories over St Mirren at Celtic Park today and Partick Thistle at Firhill on Wednesday night would leave Lennon’s men in position to formally secure the title at home to Ross County next Saturday. But if Aberdeen, who are 24 points behind in second place, drop anything against Kilmarnock today or at Ross County on Tuesday night, then Celtic’s title-clinching party could be at Maryhill in midweek.
Last season, Lennon gave his players additional time off in between winning the title and the Scottish Cup Final. With no end-of-season showpiece in his diary this year, the Celtic manager’s focus is on ensuring his squad is well prepared for the Champions League qualifying campaign, which begins on 15 or 16 July.
He will pay particular consideration to those players in line to play in the World Cup Finals in Brazil this summer, including goalkeeper Fraser Forster, left-back Emilio Izaguirre and central defender Efe Ambrose.
“We’ve been pretty much non-stop as a squad for two years,” said Lennon. “Some players are going to the World Cup, so we are very mindful that they may have to go from there straight into the Champions League qualifiers.
“We want to win the league as quickly as we can and then give them some rest and recuperation between now and when they join their countries. We’ll let them go in the period between winning the league and the end of the season.
“I’m talking about a week to 10 days, so they do not lose fitness and they’ll want to go away with their squads fully fit, too. But it is important they do get some rest as it is going to be pretty intense for them in the months after the domestic season ends.
“As for the rest, we want to get everyone back on 24 June for pre-season training, including all the internationals who are not part of the World Cup.
“It’s difficult to tell how much benefit we got from doing it last season, but we just felt it was the right thing to do. We brought them back and still had the Scottish Cup final, which we won well.
“It seemed to work then and we got the qualification for the Champions League right, too, albeit by the skin of our teeth.
“They don’t get much of a break or time to switch off. They are from different countries and don’t often get the chance to get away from the hurly-burly of here. For two years it has been non-stop and the volume of games has been heavy.”
The rest of Celtic’s season will also provide further opportunities to blood some of the club’s young talent. Midfielder Liam Henderson impressed when making his first competitive starting appearance in last weekend’s 3-0 win at Kilmarnock and the 17-year-old will remain in Lennon’s plans.
“Liam will certainly be involved,” added Lennon. “Whether I start him or not is a different thing, but he’ll feature in more games between now and the end of the season.
“You always get that worry the kid comes in adrenaline-filled and then there is a dip. But we were very pleased with his full debut and it gives the whole club a lift, the academy coaches, the players at academy level, the supporters and, obviously, ourselves.
“You want to bring them in not just for one or two games, but hopefully they become a fixture for years to come. It’s important with the strategy we have that it takes place.”
Henderson’s performance at Rugby Park came as no surprise to Charlie Mulgrew. The Scotland midfielder expects his teenage team-mate to become a permanent fixture in the Celtic set-up over the course of the next few years.
“When he started training with us in the first team we could see he was a really good player,” said Mulgrew. “Liam is really composed on the ball. When someone’s that young and relaxed you can tell they’ve got something about them. He’s only 17 so he’ll be a good player. He can be the real deal.
“He’s still got a long way to go but he’s definitely got real potential. The manager’s obviously impressed with him and has given him a chance. I hope he does well here as he looks like a top player.”
Mulgrew insists Celtic are determined to cross the Premiership finishing line with a flourish and retain their title as emphatically as possible when the final league table is compiled.
“We want to get as many points as possible, to score goals, keep clean sheets and play well,” he said.
“We want to finish the season on a high and win the league in a bit of style hopefully. There are individual targets within the team. We all want to play well. At a club like Celtic, the fans demand things and we need to live up to that.
“We want to win the league as quickly as we can. It looks like it’s going to happen now, but it’s not done until it’s done.”