Gary Hooper in but Neil Lennon eyes new striker

Gary Hooper trains with team mates ahead of the clash with Cliftonville. Picture: SNS
Gary Hooper trains with team mates ahead of the clash with Cliftonville. Picture: SNS
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Celtic manager Neil Lennon intends to hand wanted striker Gary Hooper a place in his starting line-up for the second leg of tonight’s Champions League second qualifying round against Cliftonville at Parkhead, but has revealed he hopes to sign a new forward by Thursday.

Hooper, 25, missed last week’s 3-0 victory in Belfast and Saturday’s 2-1 win at Brentford due to a groin injury but Lennon is prepared to recall his top goalscorer for what could prove to be his final appearance for Celtic, with Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers both chasing for the player’s signature.

Lennon may have resigned himself to the fact that Hooper, a £2.4m signing from Scunthorpe United three years ago, will not consider extending his stay in Glasgow but he will continue to utilise his services as long as he remains a Celtic employee. The fact that his suitors will not be involved in European competition also means that, barring injury, playing him against Cliftonville will not significantly impact on his transfer value.

“Hooper is in contention to start against Cliftonville,” said Lennon. “He’s fit now. I don’t know where Gary’s head is right now: I’m going to speak to him. I’ll get a sit-down with him and see how he is.

“He looked good in training so we’ll just see where he is mentally but I would like to play him if I could. There is no change in his situation, just talks ongoing between the club and the representatives.”

Lennon stressed, though, that he wants to add another forward to his squad ahead of this week’s signing deadline for the next Champions League qualifiers regardless of whether or not Hooper’s future has been decided by then. “We’re doing some work on that,” he said. “We do have a No.1 striker in mind and, even if Gary stays, we’d still like to bring that player in. We’re not really making great inroads but we’re trying our best. I’d like to have him by Thursday as that would mean he’d be eligible for the Elfsborg game.

“We’re working really hard on that one but it’s slow progress at the minute. He’s someone we hope will score goals on a regular basis, the way Hooper has done in the last couple of years. He’s a player we like and a player we’ve liked for a while.”

One player who has moved away, but still continues to cause problems, is Sierra Leone striker Mo Bangura. He moved to Elfsborg on a 12-month loan deal in January and, to Lennon’s exasperation, the Swedes intend to field him against Celtic if, as expected, the clubs meet to claim a Champions League play-off slot. “I will maybe speak to Mo but I don’t know how much pressure he is being put under and I don’t want to put him under any extra pressure,” he said. “Publicly I have made my own and the club’s feelings clear on that.”

There is a school of thought which suggests that Bangura, who is under contract until 2015, will have spent almost 18 months on loan to AIK Stockholm and Elfsborg by the time he returns to Scotland and that the 24-year-old may base his decision on the belief that he has no Celtic future to jeopardise. Lennon, however, argues otherwise. “Why not?” he asked. “He’s gone there are done well. He’ll be a year down the line with plenty of games under his belt with more confidence. When he was here he didn’t show the potential we thought he had. He knows the environment in Sweden — he’s thrived on it — and we hope he comes back a better player who is more mature.

“[Chief scout] John Park did a lot of work on him before we brought him in and we thought he was a talented player. It might have taken him a bit longer to settle than we initially thought and he didn’t really show what he was capable of but recently the reports on him have been very, very good. Whether he plays or not we will get on with it. It’s a very difficult situation for the player.”

Lennon also refused to accept any comparison with Harald Brattbakk, another £2m misfit who scored both goals for Rosenborg in a costly Champions League defeat in 2001. “Harald wasn’t on loan from us,” he pointed out. “It was three or four years after he had left the club so there is a significant difference. I’ve never had a situation when a loan player has actually played against his parent team.”

Squad: Forster, Izaguirre, Ambrose, Wilson, Lustig, Brown, Commons, Forrest, Stokes, Kayal, Samaras, Hooper, Zaluska, Balde, Rogic, Irvine, McGeouch, Watt, Waters.