NO DOUBT it is written somewhere in the Art of War, or the thoughts of Chairman Mao, or the philosophy of Machiavelli, never mind the published wisdom of Jock Stein or Alex Ferguson, but the time to act decisively to improve your situation is when you are in a position of strength.
In recent days, Celtic manager Neil Lennon has acknowledged that the club is indeed in a very strong position, and yesterday confirmed that the current transfer window may be the most important he has yet experienced, as it will definitely see the champions strengthen – if the right deals can be done.
Other managers in Scotland’s top league will read it and weep that Lennon has up to 12 players immediately in mind as targets. He has admitted that a left-back, centre-back, attacking midfielder and, above all, a striker are needed, and he is going after them in what he calls a “very fraught” period.
“This transfer window is important,” said Lennon. “We just have to be careful and make sure we get it right. We have a list of players who we feel we can do [business with] and will make us better. We have about 12 targets. You know you are not going to get everything that you want straightaway so you have to create options and availability and affordability as well.
“At the minute we need a striker. We’ll endeavour to bring two or three in but with strikers it is always difficult because of the money and affordability. That might take a bit of time but that’s what we are trying to do.
“Sometimes it’s very exciting, ultimately it’s very frustrating at times as well because, like kids at Christmas, you always ask for things and you don’t always get what you asked for.”
The talk of signing Steven Fletcher for £6 million is just that – talk. But Lennon knows he has the backing of major shareholder Dermot Desmond and the board if he wants to make what would be seen as a marquee signing.
“They are difficult to come by,” said Lennon. “Again, if you are going to spend £5-6m you have to be 100 per cent sure this guy is going to come in and score goals and make you better. If he does that, then people will come and watch anyway but I think we do need a bit of quality at the top end of the pitch because in two-thirds of the pitch we are very good at the minute. We just need someone to put the ball in the hole.”
Such a signing would affect the dressing room positively, Lennon feels. He said: “It’s difficult to keep hunting in the £1m/¤2m market finding players who are going to make you better and compete in the Champions League. Every now and again it’s good to bring in quality, the players need to see it as well and it gives them a jag and a bit of motivation. Yes we can do it financially but getting the deal done is another thing.”
Celtic have been linked with a clutch of Dundee United’s talented youngsters and when asked if he had spoken to United’s manager Jackie McNamara, Lennon replied coyly: “Not yet.”
One of the players who might have saved Lennon the problem of looking for a striker is Teemu Pukki, who has not set the heather afire as expected.
The Finnish international thinks he will improve in 2014: “It would have been easier to have come at the beginning of summer but I came on the last day [of the transfer window] and haven’t had so much time to train with the team because we have played so much.
“Of course, I want to show that I can be the striker here and score goals.
“I think next season will be a lot better than this season. I will need to be at my best for the Champions League qualifiers.
“I need to be a little bit more physical, and not lose balls so easily – I think that is the biggest thing, to be more physical. I am doing work in the gym with the physios. I think building body mass is what I need to do.
“Hopefully I can start scoring a lot of goals and start helping the team more. I think I took a little bit more time than I thought to adapt to the game here but I believe that I can start scoring.”
Lennon appreciates the Finn’s work: “There’s more aggression in his game and he’s certainly working harder off the ball.
“He’s worked on the physical side of the game. It was probably a shock for him at the start, the pace of the game.
“I don’t think physically he needs to bulk up more, he just needs to get in the box more. That’s where I’d like him to be, getting on the end of things. I’m hoping we’ll see the best of him in the second half of the season. But it does take time for players to adjust.”
It is that adjustment period that concerns Lennon. Some might ask why he is bothering to strengthen the squad, because in League terms at least, Celtic are some way ahead of where they were at the start of 2013.
As of this date last year, Celtic had already lost four matches and were standing at 43 points from 21 matches, compared to 51 points from 19 unbeaten games so far this season. If they beat St Mirren this afternoon in Paisley, before they head off to Turkey for a break next week they will have played one fewer match but will still be 11 points better off than they were at this stage last January.
Victory today will extend the season-long unbeaten run, and see Celtic on course to win the league championship of Scotland for the 45th time, probably before the Premiership splits into top and bottom six after the first weekend in April.
As always with Lennon, however, the Champions League is his preferred arena and his focus on being ready to qualify for the world’s greatest club tournament next summer is what drives his insistence that the January window is especially crucial this time around.
Lennon has learned from last summer’s experience, when the sale of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson did not give the Celtic coaching staff enough of a chance to bring replacements up to speed.
Lennon explained: “You don’t have time, particularly in the summer when you are playing mid-July. It’s really difficult to get the players bedded in. So if we can get them for three or four months now then we’ll be in a better position and we may not have to do any business in the summer.”
That does not mean settling for second best this month, however.
“There will come a time where the deal is dead and what do we have next, so you look at the next option and you look at it quickly.
“What we can’t do is panic buy either, just for the sake of bringing a player in to make everything look good or allegedly look good. We don’t want to look desperate either.
“But I want to inject the squad and it’s not just for the short term, it’s for the long term. So we’ll try and avoid bringing in loans. The only loans we would do would be if there was an option to buy at the end of the loan because what we want is players to come in for the next two to three years.”
Conversely, Celtic’s developing players will go out on loan, and Lennon cites the progress made by Callum McGregor at Notts County as evidence that a loan spell can be good for you.
“He’s getting rave reviews,” said Lennon, “and that’s exactly what we want from the younger players, to get experience and try and stand out.”