Dundee v Celtic: Harkins wary of wounded Hoops

THERE won’t be any complaints from Gary Harkins if the Celtic teamsheet is read out this afternoon and Leigh Griffiths’ name isn’t among the starting 11.

Dundee striker Gary Harkins is confident his side are ready for the challenge of facing the Champions, especially if old team-mate Leigh Griffiths wont feature. Photograph: Craig Foy/SNS

But the Dundee attacker, who is enjoying his third stint at Dens Park, is surprised that his former colleague is not being given more game time by Ronny Deila.

The Celtic striker has started just three competitive matches under the new Parkhead boss and Harkins will be happy if he is again confined to the bench “although I’d rather he wasn’t even in the squad to be honest,” he said.

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“I’m surprised he’s not getting a start because he scores goals. If you can put up with Sparky off the pitch as well as on it he’ll score you a barrowload of goals. There will be games where he’ll frustrate you for 85 minutes, but then he’ll score two screamers. For me, as a player, I’d have him in my team because he’ll get you goals when you need them.

“He’s different from their other strikers in that Anthony Stokes and people like that are brilliant on the ball and they’ll drop in to play. But getting in behind the defence is Sparky’s main objective and if he’s scoring he’s happy. I’d be delighted if he’s on the bench on Sunday, although you don’t even want them to have the option [to bring him on]. I remember playing with him here and seeing him score from 40 yards without having done anything all game.

“He’s a real goalscorer and he’s nowhere near what people make him out to be. He’s a lovely boy. He’s just been young and naïve and he’s made some daft decisions in his time. That has got him a bit of a reputation but for a manager, if you just believe in him and let him go and play, he’ll score you goals.”

The Glasgow side are in need of someone to give them a pick-me-up. They have already been put out the Champions League twice and, just three games into their defence of the main domestic title, they have already suffered their first defeat. They go into this afternoon’s match looking for amends after back-to-back defeats to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and then Maribor.

Those results mean that the defending Premiership champions have failed to win as many games as they have actually won in the early part of this season.

That might suggest they are vulnerable, but 29-year-old Harkins has been around Scottish football far too long to make such an assumption. He knows that wounded pride often makes them even more dangerous and offers up near neighbours Dundee United as the proof.

They were spanked 6-1 as Celtic shook off the hangover of the recent two-legged rout at the hands of Legia Warsaw.

But this is a match Dundee charge into with a decent head of steam. The Premiership new boys have enjoyed a solid start to their season and are on a six-game unbeaten run.

“Celtic will be wanting a game as soon as possible after the other night. They’ll want to put that behind them, so we need to be ready for them to be fired up.

“The reality is there’s no good time to get them. It’s Celtic. They’re a much bigger club than anybody else in the league. Their wage budget is ridiculous compared to ours. We just need to go out and play as well as we can and hope that they have an off day.”

A side intent on playing a certain way, manager Paul Hartley is reliant on guys like Harkins as the onus is heavily placed on creating chances, rather than sitting in and hoping for the best. Last weekend that creativity was lacking slightly, but they still had the wherewithal to grind out a victory over St Mirren that leaves them in the top half of the league for now. But having a game plan and managing to stick to it when faced with the might of the Parkhead side is often a different thing.

“I don’t think there’s much we can change in terms of altering our approach. We’re not going to play the long ball or sit in – we don’t have the players to do that. We can only play football the way we play football. But we need to keep it tight. If we lose a goal within the first five minutes it’s going to be a horrible afternoon.

“We know what Celtic are like. They’ve got Griffiths, who scores barrowloads, sitting on the bench. He can’t get on, so the players on the pitch must be good.” Especially when the likes of last season’s Scottish Player of the Year Kris Commons has also been reduced to a lesser role and joins Griffiths as a player finding himself on the fringes.

“He has been the best player in Scotland for a couple of years now and I can maybe understand him being out when they’re away to Maribor, when you’re bringing in a player like Kayal who maybe runs about tackling more. But, when there’s a player like Commons who can get you a goal out of nothing, I’d be delighted if he’s not playing on Sunday.”

Manager Hartley would rather they focused on what they can bring to the head to head, though.

A point echoed by Harkins.

“If you let us play, we’ll hurt you. We’ve got really good footballers in the dressing room, but last week we weren’t great and still came away with the points. That shows we’re good at the other side of the game as well. If we can put that all together we’ll be a good team this season.”