Neil Lennon in need of ‘kings’

Experience costs money but relying entirely on youth is a false economy for Celtic, writes Andrew Smith

CELTIC must produce two wins to extend their stay in the Europa League, starting with Wednesday’s hosting of Atletico Madrid. Neil Lennon knows what is required to prosper beyond that, however. “A couple of kings on the park to bring our kids on,” the manager said. “But they cost money, often a fee plus wages.” The regal performers to which the Irishman referred are men of maturity and measure. “A couple of ready-made players who you can just say ‘bang’ and they go. That’s the route we’re trying to go down in January,” he said.

Lennon has tried to go down that route before. And still these sorts are thin on the ground in any analysis of the club’s recruitment policy across the three transfer windows he has been in charge.

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In the wake of the 1-1 draw for his youthful, untried side in Glasgow two months ago, Udinese manager Francesco Guidolin crowed that the result had been achieved with “possibly the youngest team to play in the Europa League”. The average age of the Udinese starting XI was 23.27. The Celtic side had an average age of 23.72.

Only occasionally has Lennon sent out teams this season with even a solitary player in the peak-years bracket for footballers, widely accepted as between 28 and 32. Glenn Loovens and Kris Commons, both 28, Lukasz Zaluska, 29, and Cha Du-Ri, 31, are the only four he ever could. In contrast, Rangers rarely put out teams with fewer than four such players. Of course, at 34, Celtic’s Swedish defender Daniel Majstorovic might be considered a wise head, but as Lennon diplomatically put it, he is “the other side” of the peak period.

A lot is being asked of now-integral performers Adam Matthews, James Forrest and Victor Wanyama, a 19-year-old and two 20-year-olds. “The squad is young, there’s no doubt about that, and sometimes there is an inconsistency you have to understand,” Lennon said. “I certainly do as a coach. I think back to when I was that age. I was playing in League Two with Crewe.”

Thomas Rogne is next at 21, Ki Sung-Yeung is 22, while Fraser Foster, Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes are all 23. Then come the old-timers, Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley are 24, Charlie Mulgrew and Emilio Izaguirre 25, Kelvin Wilson and Georgios Samaras are both 26, while Mark Wilson and Paddy McCourt are 27. Were both clubs at liberty to play what would considered their current form XI, conceivably Celtic’s players would be younger than their Rangers counterparts in every position.

It is by design rather than accident that Celtic have no “ready mades” among their recent purchases. The club are focused on buying young players from modest markets without going above the £2.5m mark, then developing them in the hope of selling them on for a profit.

Latest acquisition Mikael Lustig just happened to join last week under freedom of the age of 24. If the Swedish wing-back were to be sold a year before the end of his three-and-a-half-year deal, he would still be under 28 and Celtic up on the deal. That sort of asset mangement isn’t possible when you bring in “ready-mades”. Two years on, they can often be over-mades who bring no real financial return. Yet, into that bracket you could place Lennon himself, his coaches Johan Mjallby and Alan Thompson and other Celtic kingpins Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert and Chris Sutton. All gave Celtic their best footballing years and no-one would seriously argue that they did not deliver value for the often humungous transfer fees and, always, fat-cat salaries.

The club now could not afford to support so many made men simultaneously. But it is valid to ask if they can continue without a single such individual, given the transience and, at times, youthful fecklessness that clearly filter through in Celtic’s displays.

“I don’t like to use youth as an excuse, but we are trying to build something,” Lennon said. “I’d like to have a few more experienced players. If you look at the young players Sir Alex Ferguson produced like [David] Beckham, he had a [Peter] Schmeichel and maybe a [Steve] Bruce to bring them on. We lack one or two of that age or that ilk, but they are hard to find and cost money.” The absence of them could yet cost more.