Neil Lennon speaks on ‘new age’ Celtic, Conor Hazard as ‘next Craig Gordon’ and latest on Karamoko Dembele, James Forrest

The hype has begun. “Celtic’s saviour” was one description applied to David Turnbull following his Lille heroics.

Neil Lennon sees "similarities" between young Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard and the club's former no.1 Craig Gordon. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Neil Lennon sees "similarities" between young Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard and the club's former no.1 Craig Gordon. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

A 21-year-old with only 56 senior career appearances and a mere two starts for the troubled Scottish champions should not be burdened by miracle-worker expectations. Into that category should also come 22-year-old Ismaila Soro, who in his first Celtic start was a revelation against the French side on Thursday.

It is likely that both players, and 22-year-old goalkeeper Conor Hazard, will retain their places for the monumental visit of Kilmarnock – which will see the final obituaries written for a 10-in-a-row pursuit teetering as Rangers have built up a 13-point lead if victory eludes Neil Lennon’s men. An altogether different challenge from the shot-to-nothing, no-penalties-for-failure Europa League game the other night.

There is a temptation to consider that Turnbull, Soro and even Hazard, for now at least, point the way ahead for the under-pressure Lennon. And point out to him that it is time for stalwarts such as Scott Brown and Tom Rogic to be set aside on a more regular basis than in a Lille-type encounter. Lennon says “absolutely” that a poor run of form – Celtic’s European win for their first in six matches and only a third in 13 outings – can be the catalyst for a team to be overhauled. He also enthused about the “freshness and honesty” he derived from his younger crop, including substitute Ewan Henderson in midweek. Context, though, is everything.

Lennon says progress of Celtic's Karamoko Dembele is "just steady" as highly-rated 17-year-old has not made expected breakthrough. (Photo by SNS Group)

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Certainly, this merry band played with a freedom not apparent in recent displays from keeper Vasilis Barkas, Brown and Rogic recently. All have seemed weighed down by the team’s consistent failings. The fact is, against a Lille that were open and on the front foot, inhibitions were easy to cast off so; especially with the game a dead-rubber. It will be a different story pitted against Kilmarnock. Alex Dyer’s men won’t be in so much in a low block at Parkhead as one positively subterranean for a contest that will leave Lennon’s men title dead ducks should they fall short.

None of this is to suggest that there might not be the beginnings of a changing of the guard at the country’s remarkable trophy-snaring powerhouse. And if Turnbull, Soro and Hazard turn it on for a second successive game, then Lennon will have serious thinking to do over his starting line-up for next Sunday’s Scottish Cup final. An occasion in which they will be seeking to conclude their unparalleled era of domestic dominance by banking a fourth straight treble. Lennon, though, is understandably cautious over dealing in any absolutes over where the composition of his first XI is heading in the short term.

“You do have to be careful you don’t over do it,” he said. “You have to try and plan it sporadically. What they [the newer young players] have shown is that they are more than capable of playing at a high level against a high standard of opposition. What it has done is given me the encouragement that I can rely on them. They are fit, they are healthy, they want to make an impression. It is exactly what I want from my squad. Whether it be through not playing, performances or the whole Covid situation, we have been through a tough period, but I am pleased we have come out the other side of it. We still have a lot of work to do, we are not getting carried away and saying ‘right these players are done, this is a new age Celtic’. You have to do it bit by bit.”

Hazard is in a different position. The inability of Barkas to settle, and the flakiness of Scott Bain, means the Irishman appears to have a real opportunity to make a lasting impression. Deliciously, it could mean next weekend lining up against a recently departed colleague who has had a crucial role in his career growth in the form of Hearts counterpart Craig Gordon. Indeed, Hazard has been likened to the 37-year-old who enjoyed such glittering success at Celtic.

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Celtic manager Neil Lennon believes David Turnbull (left) - and Ismaila Soro, Conor Hazard and Ewan Henderson - brought "freshness and honesty" to the team against Lille but says care must be taken with assimilating younger players. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

“It is a bit early to make that comparison,” said Lennon. “Craig is an outstanding goalkeeper, one of Scotland’s finest ever, but I can see the similarities. Conor is a good size, he is another lefty, he makes good saves and spreads himself well. I am sure Craig would have had a real positive influence on his development up to this point. Conor’s performances have been absolutely excellent. He has earned the right and we were delighted with him.”

The development, meanwhile, of Karamoko Dembele, a boy so long presented as the coming wonder, suggests the 17-year-old won’t necessarily be retained beyond the expiry of his contract next summer. “Just steady” is Lennon’s loaded response to an enquiry over the progress of the winger, whose attitude and still seriously diminutive are said to be raising concerns. “We just have to be careful with him and not throw him in too early. He may even develop with him physically. We just have to be patient, we know he is a quality player but physically he still has a bit of development to do to be part of the first team squad.”

Dembele was supposed to be understudy to James Forrest. Yet despite the Scotland winger being sidelined with a foot fracture for almost three months, the youngster has not featured since a substitute appearance on the opening weekend of the Premiership season. Forrest’s rehabilitation remains steady too, but the previously touted January return for a sorely missed performer could be optimistic. “He is coming off the crutches at the weekend which is a step in the right direction,” said Lennon. “We are probably looking at the end of January. By then we will have an idea of where he is.” So much will be clear for Lennon, his coltish crop and the club’s disgruntled support by then.

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