NEIL Lennon insists he has no regrets over his decision to allow Niall McGinn to leave Celtic at the end of last season and believes his compatriot’s current prolific form for Aberdeen may even earn him a move back to the Scottish champions one day.
McGinn was released on the expiry of his contract by Celtic after three years at the Parkhead club, in which he made just 15 first team starting appearances and spent last season on loan to Brentford in the third tier of English football.
The 25-year-old Northern Ireland international has flourished since joining Aberdeen and will today seek to score in an eighth consecutive league game for the Dons, which would match the feat achieved by Frank McDougall almost 30 years ago, when Celtic are the lunchtime visitors to Pittodrie.
Lennon has no doubts he was right to offload McGinn for the sake of the player’s personal development and sees parallels with the career path of Charlie Mulgrew, Scotland’s reigning Player of the Year, who is now thriving in his second spell with Celtic after a productive period at Aberdeen.
“Niall was here for three years and didn’t make a consistent breakthrough,” observed Lennon. “That’s no disgrace, it’s not a slight on him. If he looks at Charlie, who went away and came back, then Niall might be one we look at again in the future.
“He might feel he has a point to prove against us this weekend, I don’t know, but if we hadn’t let him go, he probably wouldn’t be playing the way he is just now. If we’d kept him on, he might have been just a squad player here and still trying to get into the team.
“It’s a two-way thing. He’s made the most of his opportunity. We’ve said to him, ‘look, your time on the pitch here is going to be restricted’. He’s made the most of that opportunity at Aberdeen. It’s been a good call by both parties. We’ve brought other players in.
“I did the same with Paul McGowan, letting him go to St Mirren. I knew what I had with him, but I knew he wasn’t going to be a regular at Celtic, but I knew he was a very good player and one who’d do well in the game. I can’t keep everybody. It’s impossible. You have to be fair to these boys as well. Rather than making cameo appearances, let them go and play somewhere.”
Lennon is relishing today’s assignment against a club for whom he has revealed a childhood affection. He was 11 years old when the Dons enjoyed their finest hour, defeating Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Gothenburg, and it was an achievement savoured by a small boy in Lurgan.
“I was jumping around my living room and cheering that night,” said Lennon. “I loved the Aberdeen team from that era, the way they played. It was magic, they had guys like Gordon Strachan and a bit later Jim Bett, real class players who I enjoyed watching.
“A few weeks before that European final, I was taken to Hampden for the Scottish Cup semi-final when they beat Celtic 1-0. It was one of the first Celtic games I went to. I really enjoyed watching Aberdeen play, even though it was often at Celtic’s expense in those days. I was happy to see a British team doing well in Europe and they played good football under a great manager.”
Aberdeen would leapfrog Celtic in the SPL table with victory today and Lennon welcomes the potential of a title challenge being laid down by the Pittodrie club in the first season of top flight football without Rangers.
“I said at the start of the season that there was a chance for other clubs to take the bull by the horns,” added Lennon. “Aberdeen should grow as a club in the absence of Rangers. They’ll never get a better opportunity.
“It looks like Aberdeen and Hibs have done that, while I think Dundee United will come good this season. So there are two or three clubs which should really be taking over the mantle of challengers.
“I don’t want to dismiss other clubs, but I think with Aberdeen’s size and tradition, and the fact there’s still a bit of wealth in that area, they really should be coming to the fore now. If you look at Hearts’ financial predicament, then the opportunity is there for Aberdeen. They are a big club, a sleeping giant I suppose. Our kit man John Clark was up there for quite a while when Billy McNeill was manager, and he always says it is a great club.
“It is surprising really that they haven’t hit the heights in recent years. They’ve recruited well, got some good players in and a good blend of youth and experience.
“Over the past few years they’ve produced some good young players as well – Fraser Fyvie, Peter Pawlett and this kid (Ryan) Fraser who we’re hearing good things about.
“They’re on a decent run, even though they got beat at Ross County a fortnight ago. It’s the kind of game our players will get their teeth into. The atmosphere will be intense and our players should thrive on that.”
Celtic captain Scott Brown and his fellow midfielder Joe Ledley are injury doubts for Celtic, while striker Gary Hooper and winger James Forrest will again miss out. Lennon is hopeful all four will be fit enough to travel to Portugal for the Champions League showdown with Benfica on Tuesday night.