AS the Celtic team bus headed north up the A9 yesterday afternoon, Neil Lennon was in no mood to appreciate the Highland scenery.
Any fixture in Dingwall could be a source of concern for Lennon, given his team’s failure to record a win against Ross County in three league visits to the Global Energy Stadium last season.
But it is the timing of today’s match which was most exercising the mind of the Celtic manager. It’s fair to say he is less than impressed by the prospect of a 12.45pm kick-off, for the purposes of live television coverage on BT Sport, in the first game after his team’s Champions League assignment in Amsterdam on Wednesday night.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Lennon. “I’m really angry about it. I just don’t think it’s fair. We have had a really tough game on Wednesday night and I’ve got no time to work with the players before we go up to Dingwall.
“I don’t know how they’ll be feeling in the morning. We’ll just have to see. There is no reason why it couldn’t be a 3pm kick-off or even a Sunday game. That window between Wednesday night and Saturday morning – these are the games where you are likely to pick up injuries after the second one so we have to be careful. I wasn’t aware it was an early kick-off until early this week. I think it’s a big ask – and a big ask for supporters as well.”
Lennon believes television companies are even short-changing their viewers and potentially diminishing the standard of football on view by scheduling Celtic on a Saturday lunchtime immediately after a Wednesday night European fixture.
He has called on those who determine when fixtures are moved for TV to include the managers affected by it when they are planning the schedules. He also pointed to the policy in the English Premier League where teams who play in Europe on Wednesdays are not expected to return to domestic action until 3pm on the following Saturday at the earliest.
“It would be nice if managers were involved in these decisions,” added Lennon. “I don’t think an extra day to the Sunday is an awful lot to ask for. In England, the Champions League teams play later on Saturday or on Sunday after a Wednesday game. But we are the early kick-off this Saturday at the furthest geographical point in the league away from us. I think it’s harsh.
“It’s the players and their recovery I’m concerned about – plus what kind of performance they are able to put in. They are absolutely battering the players at the minute. Some of them are up to 20 games already this season. Plus you have international players, although that’s nothing to do with the SPFL or the TV companies.
“I do think they could cut us a bit of slack though. At the end of the day, you are in the entertainment business. People are paying money to watch Celtic play. Some want to see Celtic win, some want to see Celtic lose and some just want to see a good game of football.
“But you might not always get that with the recovery time between a Champions League game and a Saturday lunchtime.”
Against a Ross County side whose last two matches have been abandoned, prompting Lennon to observe “they’ll be as fresh as the milk in the morning”, Celtic will be without Georgios Samaras because of a knee problem.
Captain Scott Brown and Israeli midfielder Nir Biton return to the squad after missing the Champions League defeat to Ajax through suspension and Lennon will make several changes to his starting line-up. “I want to win at Ross County to keep our good run in the league going,” he added. “But I’ve had no time to prepare for the game. The players were in today then have to go three hours up the road and get up early in the morning.
“Then after Saturday, we’ve got another international break when I’ll have 12 players away. Only Mikael Lustig and Georgios Samaras have meaningful games, in the World Cup play-offs. The rest are playing in friendlies. At this time of the season, that drives me up the wall.
“I’ve got three players in the Scotland squad (Brown, Charlie Mulgrew and James Forrest) and I’ve spoken to Gordon Strachan so he knows what I want from him regarding them. The volume of games does take its toll on players, plus injuries have curtailed us in terms of using the squad so far. So we may have to look at changing things against Ross County.”
Rather than exert his players on the training pitch yesterday morning, Lennon sat them down to watch a full 90 minute re-run of the 1-0 midweek defeat to Ajax. It was a performance which brought rare public criticism from the Celtic boss of his team. “I think I was right to have a bit of a pop at them,” he reflected. “They knew it was coming and I don’t think they had any case to argue. I will get a reaction from them
“It is my right to criticise the team but I don’t want other people to hop on the bandwagon. They are not flops. They have not become a shocking team overnight, they just had one bad 45 minutes. They are punching well above their weight at the minute and they will continue to do so. If we win our next game in the Champions League, then there is the possibility of going second in the group and then the whole thing flips over again and looks a lot brighter.”