Alan Pattullo: Why Celtic's answer to goalkeeping woes could be right under their noses with Conor Hazard
In these times of goalkeeping uncertainty at Celtic, the last thing Neil Lennon may think he needs is to turn to someone whose very name denotes peril.
Instead of avoiding Hazard, the Celtic manager should be inviting it – Conor Hazard, that is, the goalkeeper who may well be the answer few have thought of to the question: Vasilis Barkas or Scott Bain?
Why not? A similar scenario unfolded just over 16 years ago, when Lennon was still a player. He will remember David Marshall coming in from nowhere to render redundant the argument about whether Robert Douglas or Magnus Hedman, a big money purchase from Coventry City, should be the No 1.
Circumstances undoubtedly helped Marshall. He was on the bench when Douglas received a red card in the home leg of a Uefa Cup tie against Barcelona and stepped into the breach with aplomb, keeping his place for the away leg when he kept a clean sheet to help his side progress 1-0 on aggregate. Remarkably, he was just 19-years-old. He had no previous senior experience of note and yet he did not do – and is not doing – so badly.
Hazard is not as green, so to speak. Nor – at 22-years-old – is he that young. He has been on loan at three different Championship clubs, including two spells most recently at Dundee. Already established as Northern Ireland’s Under 21 goalkeeper, he was promoted to the top squad last month. At 6ft 5in tall, he already has one attribute over Barkas and Bain – physique. He is also not lacking in confidence.
Former Dundee assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl, who worked with Hazard at Dens Park last season and continues to do so with Northern Ireland, believes it would not be beyond Hazard to step in for the reigning champions and help stabilise a season currently threatening to veer wildly off-track. Pushing the current third-choice ‘keeper into the side might not be an obvious cure for defensive woes but can things get much worse?
Hazard is not completely untried – he played in a summer friendly against Hibs, and, by all accounts, did well. At the very least he could be given a run out on Thursday against Lille in what is, for Celtic at least, a meaningless Europa League group tie. Hazard has been on the bench for four of Celtic’s five group games to date.
“I can only say what he did for us,” said Nicholl, reflecting on Hazard’s latest spell at Dundee, where he kept five successive clean sheets – close to a club record – before the season was cut short due to Covid-19.
“Can a young goalkeeper like Conor have a stabilising effect on senior players? You don’t know until you’ve tried it,” added Nicholl. “Conor is confident and he is calm. He has other attributes too, such as distribution and handling – they are all spot on. It would not faze him at all.”
Whatever happens, Lennon knows things cannot continue as they are – flipping between two goalies slowly draining of confidence. The solution could be closer to hand than he might think.
A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription - https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.