It appeared only last week they had achieved some long-overdue stability in the centre of their defence for a Premiership challenge, courtesy of racking up a fourth straight league clean sheet – their long such sequence in this ill-fated championship campaign.
But then along came another long-term injury for Christopher Jullien, the inauspicious endeavours of Nir Bitton and Shane Duffy in Saturday’s disastrous derby loss at Ibrox – the former red-carded to transform the encounter, and the latter fortunate not to suffer the same fate after being introduced as a response to going down to 10 men – and Neil Lennon finds himself back to square one. Never mind facing a 19-point deficit in the title race with Rangers that has effectively brought the curtain down on the club’s pursuit of a record 10th straight championship.
The Celtic manager has acknowledged that he will now need to dip into the transfer market to offset the absence of Jullien. The Frenchman is expected to miss all but the closing month of the season; a four-month prognosis given for the 27-year-old’s recovery from knee-ligament damage sustained in a collision with the post as he ensured Celtic did not concede in the 3-0 victory over Dundee United ahead of travelling to Ibrox.
A back problem denied Lennon’s men not merely a centre-back arguably the most accomplished in the country for a two-and-a-half months spell from late September. A spell that largely proved killing ground for Celtic’s troubled season. The big personality that fills Jullien’s hulking frame has meant Lennon too often this term being deprived of one of his true team leaders. In all, the £7m signing from Toulouse in the summer of 2019 has only been able to feature in 15 games this season. Celtic kept clean sheets in seven of these, winning 10 and drawing two. Despite some jittery outings, Lennon can trust Jullien in a manner his transfer admission following the Rangers reverse makes plain he cannot with Bitton and Brighton loanee Duffy.
The Celtic board will find themselves in a quandary over a central defensive recruitment in the January window. They appear willing to allow Lennon to limp along for now, but are unlikely to furnish him with major funds to bolster his squad. Furthermore, any centre-back signed from beyond these borders in the coming weeks would need a period of assimilation – a luxury Celtic and Lennon do not possess. It means the club require to think outside the box in bettering their defending within it. It seems unfashionable to look across Scotland for stop-gaps, but there is a needs-must aspect to compensating for Jullien’s absence.
That is where Declan Gallagher comes in. The Motherwell centre-back’s exceptional showings with Scotland demonstrate he can prosper in a talented set-up Celtic would offer him, whatever the travails besetting the Fir Park club this season. Out of contract in the summer, the Lanarkshire club would be unable to reject a decent offer. No-one would claim the 29-year-old is a world beater, but in the unforgiving international domain Gallagher has proved he can offer aerial protection in his own box – which at too many crucial moments this season has proved beyond the boyhood club with which he began his career.