Big favourites, but Neil Lennon insists Celtic players won’t be complacent over title chances
Neil Lennon has assured Celtic supporters that his players won’t let complacency disrupt their attempt to win a second successive Scottish Premier League title. The promise doubled as a warning to other teams in the league who might seek to profit from any slackness on Celtic’s part as the top tier in Scottish football prepares to sample life without Rangers for the first ever time.
Any player he suspects of taking it easy will be dropped instantly, Lennon pledged yesterday. “There is no change there, regardless of the situation in the league,” he said. “I want players here who are hungry and challenging for places. No-one is guaranteed their place.”
Given Celtic’s experiences in the cup competitions last season, Lennon believes there is a lot to play for. As well as retaining the title, he wants to see his side have a shot at winning everything that is on offer in the domestic game. “We’ve also come close to a treble on a couple of occasions in recent seasons and that’s something we’ll throw down to the players as a challenge,” he said.
Lennon is looking forward to watching the title flag being raised at Parkhead this afternoon prior to the clash with Aberdeen, one of the clubs with reason to re-set their sights this season. The Celtic manager believes the Pittodrie side will enjoy a more fruitful campaign after performing well in the transfer market. Included among Craig Brown’s additions have been the former Celtic forward Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes, a one-time Parkhead target. “I did genuinely consider Hayes,” said Lennon. “He’s one that I quite liked the look of.” He added that he expected Aberdeen to make a “significant improvement” on recent years.
The Celtic manager hopes teams will respond to the absence of Rangers by being more ambitious. “There’s an opportunity there for them, now that one of the big clubs is out of the picture,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to challenge for the title, or at least for second place.”
Lennon is saddened that the on-going Rangers saga has taken away from Celtic’s achievements last season. The decision to ask Sean Fallon, a legendary assistant manager to Jock Stein at Parkhead, to take part in the official ceremonies today means the attention of all those in attendance will be trained on the pitch as the flag is unfurled.
“I’m really looking forward to the flag ceremony,” he said. “It’s a significant gesture and a symbol of what we achieved last year, and it’s been a few years since we’ve had it. The fact that Sean Fallon will be there to unfurl it, an iconic Celtic figure, is very fitting.
“We have waited long enough to get it back,” he continued. “Maintaining it is paramount, as well as enjoying the moment and getting the season underway. I think it will be a reminder of what we’ve achieved, because there has been a lot of other stuff distracting our attention. When that flag goes up, it will be a reminder of what we did last year.”
It is what Celtic will do this coming season which dominates the agenda on the eve of the new campaign. Some believe that it is not worth even pondering the question. For them it is a case of what Celtic should and indeed are almost guaranteed to do. If Lennon’s side are not out of sight by Christmas it will be perceived as failure. John McGlynn, the new Hearts manager, is among those who have wondered whether the Celtic players will find it impossible to remain unaffected by the widely-held opinion that they only need to turn up to retain the title.
Lennon is adamant that this belief will not seep into the subconscious of his players. He dismissed the idea that Celtic will be champions-elect by the end of the year as “speculative” and “disrespectful” to other clubs.
“We don’t see it that way,” he added. “We’re looking forward to defending the title and looking forward to the competitiveness of this league. It will give other clubs an opportunity to strive to get to the top.
“We are obviously the heavy favourites, I understand that. But we probably would have been heavy favourites anyway. We’re just heavier with Rangers not being there. But I give them short shrift, the people who say the season is going to be over very quickly.”
While he has spoken to the players about the unfamiliar nature of the new season - no Old Firm derbies, a new ground in Ross County’s Global Energy stadium to visit on league duty - he has not felt it necessary to underline the need to be just as focused as when Rangers were their perennial rivals. “I haven’t had to make the point to the players,” said Lennon. “We try to emphasise to them not to allow outside influences to affect them.
“Our defeats last year weren’t exclusively against Rangers. We lost to Hearts a couple of times, dropped points to Kilmarnock, Dundee United and Motherwell. There are other teams who will challenge, teams who can take points off us or beat us. I can’t speculate, you can never predict what is going to happen in football.
“But the one thing I can guarantee is there will be no complacency from the players. They want to improve.”
Aberdeen will be hoping that Lennon’s “significant improvement” predictions comes to fruition as the season progresses, and on the eve of the new campaign Dons manager Craig Brown is hoping Hayes and McGinn go a long way to boosting the team’s fortunes.
“The squad is as strong as I can recall, on paper anyway,” said Brown, who confirmed that his players will applaud the champions on to the pitch. “The evidence of the pre-season matches confirms we have a good squad and hopefully we will stay clear of injury, and if we do that we will be okay.
“The more I see of Niall and Jonny in training and in the pre-season games we played you realise we have a transformed middle-to-front in the team. We have to score more goals than last season. On the evidence so far we have more goals in this team than we did last year.”
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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