NEIL Lennon has vowed to do everything in his power to keep Gary Hooper at Celtic, but knows he faces a tough fight to hold on to the English striker.
The Celtic manager will meet Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell and majority shareholder Dermot Desmond this week or early next with the aim of shaping the squad for next season, and the future of Hooper will be at the top of the agenda.
Lennon also hopes to agree a new contract for himself, and is in a strong negotiating position after Sunday’s Scottish Cup final win over Hibernian made him just the third man to win the double with Celtic as both player and manager. He expects to lose several players over the close season, but his priority is to ensure that Hooper, who put Celtic on the path to victory at Hampden with two first-half goals, is not one of them.
“I’m due to meet Dermot and Peter – I’m going to sit down with them over the next week or so,” Lennon said. “I might even go to Ireland, see Dermot over there, or see him in London.
“I’m hoping that we can talk about what we’re going to do for the close season as well, because we haven’t really had that conversation yet in terms of bringing players in, targets, and what the budget’s going to be.
“There will be a few leaving, and we’ll talk about that to the players this week. And then I’m sure we’ll get offers for a player or two. Sometimes you can’t do anything about that.
“It depends on the offer – if it’s right for us, if it’s right for the club, if it gives us something we can build on, if you can replace the player that will go. There are some players I would dearly love to keep and I’ll be making that clear to Peter and Dermot in a week or so.”
With a new deal for Anthony Stokes all but finalised, Lennon explained that the next step was to secure the services of Hooper. “He’s a master – a master player, a master goalscorer. I just thought he was wonderful [on Sunday].
“He and Stokes play so well together at times and have really caught the imagination. If Gary needs to go, then he leaves a great legacy behind him. And he’s only 25. He would be one I would be desperate to keep.
“He’s just a natural, intelligent footballer. If he does go, if we lose him, if he wants to go, he’s going to be really hard to replace, but we will do everything we can, I will do everything I can to keep him.”
While acknowledging the possibility that Hooper will leave, Lennon said there was no truth in rumours that the striker had been distracted by the thought of moving on. “That’s just people speculating. He’s scored 31 goals this season. He’s just kept his form going. He does have dips, like every player does, but it seems when Gary has a dip, everyone accuses him of wanting away. It’s rubbish, absolute rubbish.”
The manager made the same vehement denial when asked about rumours that he was on his way – with managerless Everton having been the latest supposed port of call. “In terms of me moving on, there’s nothing in it. It’s all speculation, no approaches, nothing like that at all.”
Asked if he hoped for a different contract to replace his current deal, he added: “Yeah, but that’s private. That would be between myself and the board.”
Paddy McCourt, who came off the bench and was given the captain’s armband for the last few minutes on Sunday, is one player who will be on his way. “Not spoken to him, but read into that [the captain’s armband] what you like.”
The manager also refused to set a limit on the money he would have to spend, saying any significant outgoings on big-name players would only be made if deemed suitable for the club. “If there is a realistic one within what we deem our wage salary and transfer fee and he can make us better, it’s something I would look at.”
Having won the Scottish Cup in relative comfort, Lennon was able to reflect on a successful season, in which Celtic exceeded expectations in Europe. Whatever happens to Hooper, and whether any marquee signings join his squad, the manager knows that emulating that success next season will be tough. “This was a nice way to finish. It was important to win another trophy, because if we hadn’t, then it’s a single-trophy year.
“It’s going to be difficult to improve that. Are we going to get another run in Europe like that? It’s going to be very difficult. And that’s the reality of it. I think getting to the last 16 and beating Barcelona along the way is as good as it gets.
“I don’t like the [Champions League] qualifiers. They’re the nervy games. We’ve got three to negotiate. That means you’ve got to get your pre-season spot on, you’ve got to get the players in the right frame of mind.
“But I think what they tasted this year might motivate them for a little bit more. I would cut your hand off right now to be in the group stages.
“I just have to keep motoring on and try and improve and progress the club as best we can. People will have their opinions of me. I know what a lot of people think of me in Scotland, but there you go. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved, what the backroom staff have achieved and what the players have achieved this year.”