WITHIN minutes of Rangers being formally excluded from the Scottish Premier League this week, Celtic’s odds to retain their title in the new season were set at an unprecedented 50-1 on.
If anything, that price might even be regarded as generous. As far as sporting certainties go, there is an almost unanimous presumption throughout the Scottish game that Neil Lennon’s team will now romp their way to the finishing line in record time.
But even if Scottish football’s traditional two-horse race is to be reduced to a one-sided procession, the Celtic manager is determined to ensure it does not diminish the standards of performance and professionalism he is committed to developing among his players.
Lennon is hopeful progress to the group stage of the Champions League can compensate for the loss of their competitive domestic rivalry with Rangers, but will hammer home a message to his squad that they must be respectful of any fresh challenge from other clubs keen to take advantage of the Ibrox club’s absence.
“What I can’t allow is for a malaise to sweep in here,” said Lennon. “That will come from external factors, people telling the players that the league is over even before it has started. We have to keep a competitive edge at all times and keep the players hungry for success.
“People have said that there will be an edge lost without Rangers, and maybe a lack of competitiveness, but that is a challenge for me. Europe becomes even more of an incentive for us, which then puts more of an onus on these Champions League qualifying games that are coming up at the end of the month. We would like to keep the season rolling and, to do that, we would certainly like more games in Europe.
“Maybe the SPL will be more competitive because Rangers aren’t there. It gives other clubs like Dundee United, Hearts and Aberdeen an opportunity to challenge for second place, whereas before they wouldn’t have thought they’d have much of a chance. The opportunity is there. If I were a player at one of these other clubs I’d be thinking we’ve got a real good chance to go forward and make an improvement this year.
“Everyone is saying that it is a foregone conclusion, but I can’t say that. Football is unpredictable and you never know what is around the corner, but we are trying to progress. We are trying to progress the team, progress the club and this season is another step with that progression, regardless of whether Rangers are there or not.”
With the voice of supporters having been influential in the SPL’s refusal of a share transfer to newco Rangers, Lennon believes those fans now have a duty to repay their clubs in the coming season by pouring through the turnstiles in increased numbers.
While he is comfortable with the level of resources available to him, Lennon says the financial impact of a league without Rangers could force him into the sale of at least one high-profile player. “It’s the same remit for me as it has been previously, to try to balance the books with players going out, paying the wages and trying to bring players in,” added Lennon. “It may mean that we have to sell a player in terms of the commercial loss that comes with losing the Old Firm games this season.
“The fundamental reason for the decision of the chairmen this week was that they listened to the opinions of their support and they weren’t impressed by what Rangers had to say. All I can do is have a bearing on this club, these players and these supporters. More than ever, we need our supporters to come through the door because we are going to be hit commercially and financially with Rangers not in the SPL.
“The fans have got to back them up now. I assume it has been a gamble that clubs were willing to take. From our point of view, we are the champions for the first time in four years so you would think that would be an incentive for our supporters to come out.
“We need our supporters now, more than ever. We have a vibrant young team that we want to take further and, without the backing of the supporters, we might not be able to do that. Everyone is talking as though the SPL is a dead duck. It might not be, but we have to make sure that the people in the game put on a product that brings the punters back in.”
Celtic head to Germany tomorrow to start their pre-season preparations with a three-match tour, prior to higher profile friendly fixtures against Ajax, Norwich City and Inter Milan before their opening Champions League qualifier at the end of July. “I’m very wary of the Champions League tie as they will be our first competitive games and they are always very difficult, regardless of who the opposition is,” he said. “So we are trying to do things right over the close season. We are trying to condition the players as best we can in the coming weeks. I feel we have a good pre-season ahead of us. Hopefully, we’ll have the majority of players up to speed before that and have a real go.”
Having completed the permanent signing of goalkeeper Fraser Forster from Newcastle United for £2 million, Lennon has his eye on further recruits before the Champions League begins, but reports that “nothing is happening at the minute”.