Celtic’s Neil Lennon has sympathy for Hearts on Scottish Cup

He says the semi-finals and final could be played in the space of four days

Celtic manager Neil Lennon with the Scottish Cup following last year's final triumph against Hearts. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Playing the Scottish Cup to a finish, and playing fair to Hearts over the fact they could be a lower league team with a reduced budget next season, has Neil Lennon believing the competition could be best completed as a curtain-raiser whenever the game is able to restart in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The nine-in-a-row Scottish champions were deprived the opportunity to complete an historic quadruple treble by the shutdown necessitated by the health crisis. SFA president Rod Petrie has intimated that only when the delayed semi-finals – which had paired Celtic with Aberdeen and the two Edinburgh clubs together – are able to be contested in front of crowds will the governing body look to reschedule the ties. As social distancing measures are likely to remain in place for the remainder of the year, that means they are unlikely to go ahead until 2021.

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Lennon said he understands the “hypothesis” that suggests Hearts, relegated as Celtic were confirmed champions on Monday, would be disadvantaged by such a late conclusion to the competition if a Championship club by then and appears to favour an earlier “cleaner” resolution – even if it meant playing behind closed doors, which SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell said yesterday he considered could be possible as early as August.

Hearts and Celtic contested last season's Scottish Cup final. Picture: SNS

“It would be magic to have the opportunity to play for it. If we can fit that in then I am all for that,” said Lennon. “The SFA have been saying they do want it completed and I think the four clubs who are involved in the competition would want that as well. I think playing it over the course of three or four days, maybe Wednesday and a weekend, would be absolutely fine.

“The maximum number of games we would play in that would be two and that is if we can overcome Aberdeen. So I don’t think it would have a huge bearing on next season. If we can do it, great. If not then we just have to accept that and move on to concentrate on the future.

“At the minute we are looking to play any kind of football. Until we find a remedy to get supporters back in, behind closed doors is going to be a way to play our football. I enjoyed watching the Bundesliga last weekend – it was good to see live football back. I watched Cologne v Mainz, that was a really good game considering. I felt the players in all the games I watched over three days made it a good spectacle but the novelty might wear off on that.

“It is not ideal; we have to find that balance in terms of safety of the public and safety of the players and playing competitive football. Of course, not having supporters is a huge loss. I can understand Hearts fans saying their team might not be as strong when the games are played. We will be ready and prepared for whatever eventuality the SFA come forward with, but all four clubs would have to agree.

“Right now we’re gearing for 10 June and I’m hoping to get some sort of clarity on what we can and can’t do with the players from that date on in terms of training in small groups and hopefully opening it up. We’re being directed by the government and health authorities.”

For now, Lennon can bask in the glory of a faultless domestic record since returning to the club in the immediate aftermath of Brendan Rodgers leaving for Leicester City in March 2019. The reaction to his being handed the reins permanently in the minutes after delivering the triple treble at Hampden a year ago was muted, at best. A sizeable section of the Celtic support expressed grave displeasure and doubts. The 48-year-old’s endeavours in the nine months that followed have ended any arguments about his suitability for a second tour of duty at the club’s managerial helm. Not least because they have allowed him to become – with nine trophies – Celtic’s most successful manager since Jock Stein.

“You always have to prove yourself. Coming in after what Brendan had achieved was perfect in terms of winning domestic trophies,” he said. “It was a huge undertaking when I came in as interim manager before we won the treble treble. When I got the job on a permanent basis there were a lot of doubters at the time.

“That was a motivation for me to prove them wrong. A year down the line I think I have silenced them all and I am comfortable and happy with the progress we have made. We have improved in terms of our performances on the pitch and that isn’t a slight on Brendan in any way. If you look at the stats from the season just finished to the one before, we got better.

“Last summer I thought we could be more penetrating and we have been. Without getting carried away I am delighted with what we have produced since I came back. I do feel it is my team now. There is still some structure from Brendan’s time and the players’ routines and things, we kept them in place. But we tweaked a few things in terms of training sessions and the way we wanted them to play. We looked at things in January and changed the formation and that worked well for us.”

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