Barkas, Bain or Hazard? - Celtic legend Pat Bonner has his say on goalkeeper merry-go-round

The keeper carousel at Celtic certainly would never be described as all the fun at the fair.

Pat Bonner says he would give Conor Hazard (pictured) the chance to prove himself over the next four months in end the switching between three keepers that has happened this season. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Pat Bonner says he would give Conor Hazard (pictured) the chance to prove himself over the next four months in end the switching between three keepers that has happened this season. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Instead, it might be argued it has been no fun and not fair to the three individuals Neil Lennon has dropped in and out to cover the role at various intervals over the past seven months. The Celtic manager offered a damning verdict on the reliability of Vasilis Barkas when stating he had not settled since his £5m summer arrival from AEK in explaining why he chose to drop him in favour of Scott Bain for Wednesday’s win over Hamilton. It made for the second time this season the Greek international has had to give way to the former Dundee man. In turn, erratic form from Bain when handed a run during Celtic’s dismal spell across November and December resulted in him being dropped for 22-year-old Conor Hazard. All of this before Lennon declared, at the end of the December, the under-21 Northern Ireland wasn’t at the stage of his development where he was a challenger for the no.1 role long-term and that it was time for Barkas to be his first pick. Only for both the Greek and Bain to be among the 13 Celtic players forced to isolate following Christopher Jullien’s positive Covid-19 test on the return from the ill-fated Dubai trip. A situation that put Hazard back between the sticks for the two games played during that period.

Now that we are back to Bain it feels like Lennon has found himself with one of those infuriating logic puzzles that leads back to what you first thought of - the Brendan Rodgers’ signing having faced Hamilton in the first weekend of the Premiership season as a result of Barkas having arrived only days before the opener. The £5m deal then was a consequence of being unable to convince Fraser Forster to return for another season on loan from Southampton following his scintillating contribution to the successful nine-in-a-row campaign.

The goalkeeper churn for Celtic hasn’t been just dizzying. A Barkas that Lennon maintains is struggling to assimilate to his new life in Scotland could only feel all the more unsettled as a result of the uncomfortable truths Lennon delivered about his seven months in Scotland in the aftermath of Bain’s midweek clean sheet. “I don’t think Vasilis has settled,” said the Celtic manager. “He’s not the presence at the minute that he can be. I think he needs a bit of adaptation, more time. I don’t think he is up to the speed and physicality of the game. I made the decision to bring Scott back in. He has been knocking at the door and he was comfortable. You will probably see the best of Vasilis as we go along, not just at this moment.”

The comments from Neil Lennon that Vasilis Barkas hasn't settled and hasn't shown the presence to justify first-pick status already seems to leave the Greek at a career crossroads only six months after joining the club in a £5m deal from AEK Athens. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Pat Bonner, the man who enjoyed the greatest longevity of any keeper in Celtic’s history through enjoying two decades service to the club from 1978, has more than a degree of sympathy for the Greek, a sensitive soul who has been feeling his way during an age of lockdowns necessitated by a global pandemic. Yet, he doesn’t necessarily see Bain as the answer. He believes that persisting with Hazard, a keeper Celtic have sought to progress through the ranks since signing him in July 2014, might have been the better bet. In truth, Hazard has appeared as vulnerable dealing with crosses as any of Celtic three keepers.

Barkas’ inability to fashion big moments - as was a strength of Craig Gordon and, then Forster - has certainly been picked over. The stat feasted over is that he has conceded three goals despite only facing two opposition on-targets across his two games in 2021. Callum McGregor’s own goal in the loss at Ibrox - a derby in which Rangers failed to muster a single attempt on goal - giving way to Livingston converting from their only on-targets in last week’s 2-2 draw, accounts for that.

Bonner admits his bias towards Hazard isn’t entirely unrelated to his own early struggles to convince when pitched in by Billy McNeill during the 1980-81 campaign. The Celtic manager kept faith with him despite some errors in his early outings, and was rewarded by Bonner growing into the role. How Barkas develops such belief in the face of the issues that have beset him is a question that flummoxes the Republic of Ireland icon.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” said Bonner when asked what he made of the Barkas situation. “Neil admitted there that he hasn’t settled, which is a big thing to say after all these weeks. I know the conditions are different now. I know it’s very difficult. I speak to players about being away from home and coming to a new country in the current climate. We are all struggling with it a bit and it must be really difficult for somebody coming to a new country and a new club and being in these conditions. But, at the end of the day, they paid big money for him. That’s what you are paying for – for someone who will come and settle in and adapt quickly.

Scott Bain is now effectively in his third occupation of the goalkeeping position at Celtic following his return to the side for the midweek win over Hamilton.(Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

“Personally I love to see young goalkeepers coming through. I would love to see them giving a chance to Conor to see what he could do over the next three or four months, which is nothing against Scott Bain. It would be just to see how Conor does and then make the big decision in the summer as to whether they need to go after someone again or so on. The problem is, that if you don’t play Barkas and he doesn’t get the opportunity to make saves they paid £5m for, then you are never going to know what he might be able to do and that’s the dilemma they have now. You can’t keep swapping your goalkeeper around.”

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