NEIL Lennon yesterday stressed that he is confident Fraser Forster’s future is with Celtic – in the short-term at least.
However, the Celtic manager admitted that he would not be surprised if yesterday’s heroics at Easter Road attracted further bids for the goalkeeper before Friday night’s signing deadline.
Forster has now gone ten domestic games since conceding a goal and he was again outstanding for Celtic in their 4-0 victory over Hibernian.
The last time Celtic lost a goal against Scottish opposition was just before half-time against Aberdeen on 23 November. But Lennon noted that Forster had to work hard to preserve this remarkable sequence of clean sheets at Easter Road yesterday.
One save in particular provoked gasps from the crowd. The 19-year-old Sam Stanton had already announced himself to the supporters in some style before he created room after 66 minutes to shoot towards Forster’s top left hand corner.
The teenager was heartbroken to see the goalkeeper stretch out a hand to touch the ball over the bar. The save was a defining moment in the match since it preserved the early lead that the in-form Kris Commons had given his side.
Three goals in the final 15 minutes – including Commons’ 21st of the season, from the penalty spot, and a wonder strike from a contentious free kick by Virgil van Dijk – saw the champions secure the three points.
The win takes Celtic 15 points clear of second-placed Aberdeen, over whom they have two games in hand. Lennon’s side have now extended their unbeaten run in the Scottish Premiership to 22 games.
So comfortable is their position that some have wondered whether Celtic might be persuaded to sell one of their prize assets in Forster. The goalkeeper is desperate to be included in England’s World Cup squad ahead of this summer’s finals in Brazil and it has been suggested that his chances would be improved if he returned south of the Border. However, Lennon sounded confident that Forster will remain at the club until the end of the season at least.
“I’ve said all along that I’m pretty confident he’ll be here when the window closes, as the majority of our main players will be,” said Lennon after yesterday’s game. “It wouldn’t surprise me if an offer were to come in. But we’re not encouraging it at the moment.”
The manager is also confident that his own desire to keep Forster at the club is mirrored in the boardroom. “I’m pretty sure, yeah,” he said. “I’ve said all along that we spoke to Fraser in the summer, we emphasised our position – and he was quite happy and content with that. I think he’s pretty happy here. I know he has got personal aims in the future. But his short-term future, anyway, is with Celtic.”
Lennon praised Forster’s stop from Stanton, one of a number of saves the goalkeeper was forced to make as a young Hibs team sought to find a way back into the game.
“There are not many goalkeepers who can make those kind of saves,” said Lennon.
“It just shows his power of concentration, when he’s not doing a lot, that he can switch on like that – and be the barrier that he is. Stanton’s shot looked a goal all the way. How he got his hand to it and pushed it away, I don’t know. It was a fantastic effort from the kid and a wonderful save.”
Hibs manager Terry Butcher was among those who were crestfallen by Forster’s remarkable save from Stanton, although he admitted there was one consolation: “I am delighted he is an Englishman, but I don’t want to think about that tonight.”
He described the 6ft 7in goalkeeper as being “like a big crane” in the way he gathers the ball.
Butcher was not so admiring of referee Craig Thomson’s performance. Much of the post-match conversation surrounded the positive aspects of the game such as Forster’s stops and the strike from Van Dijk that extinguished Hibs’ hopes of making a comeback.
But Butcher felt Thomson’s performance again fell short of what was required. The manager disputed the award of the free-kick from which Van Dijk scored. Thomson penalised Hibs centre-half Michael Nelson for handball, a decision that baffled Butcher
“The same referee didn’t give a handball against the same player for the same incident at Aberdeen,” he complained, with reference to a recent game at Pittodrie when Nelson escaped punishment for being unable to get out of the way of a cross from Peter Pawlett.