IT WAS an opening leg that brought closure in more than one respect.
The nature of Celtic’s 3-0 defeat in their last 16 Champions League tie with Juventus on Tuesday means the midweek starting XI will never again line up together for one of those gloriously glamorous Glasgow encounters.
Neil Lennon knows that, as he now steels himself for the departure of key players in the close season. But crucial for Celtic and Lennon will be the timing of any exits. It might be the beginning of the end for the current side. The manager, though, will be desperately hoping the end days of the squad are spent securing a new beginning in next season’s Champions League.
Celtic, as Scottish champions elect, will require to negotiate three qualifying rounds to return to the group stage. The first of these will be played in the middle of July. From that point, Lennon’s team will be focused on seeing action every midweek for four weeks in the tournament. Hardly games in which to bed in new players, or come to terms with the loss of previously pivotal ones.
“You normally find in the summer that the majority of business gets done later on in the summer,” says Lennon, and this would allow him to keep his squad intact at least until the Champions League play-off stage at the end of August. If Celtic even just make it that far, they are guaranteed European football, via the Europa League, at least until Christmas.
“[The Champions League] qualifiers are getting earlier and earlier,” says Lennon. “It is imperative we get in but the demands and the pressures of the qualifiers are huge, because they are pretty much your first competitive game after the break. You don’t know who you are going to get. We coped well this season, I was very impressed with the way the squad coped with the two qualifiers [winning all four ties], but we have got three so it is even harder.”
Lennon knows his job becomes even harder the moment the blocks he has put in place to construct a settled side get dislodged. That moment is on the horizon. “We will have to rebuild in the summer,” he says. “I would say there would maybe be one or two players wanting to leave at the end of the season. You know what it’s like; sometimes it is impossible to stop that. So we will get working away to replace them, or looking for replacements in those areas, which again is difficult for me to do sometimes. But I am very proud of the team, the performances this year have been heroic and have given a lot of life back to Scottish football this season.”
The “one or two” want-away players to whom he refers will be deduced as being Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper. This pair seem to have been on their way out of the club from within months of joining it. Yet Lennon states “it is not fair at all” to infer that so far fruitless negotiations on a new contract with the English striker point to the 25-year-old being one of the departing. “We had a chat with them [Hooper’s representatives] on Wednesday,” he says. “We are still working on the contract situation so I wouldn’t say Gary would come into that bracket.”
That raises the possibility of the other potential departing player perhaps being Fraser Forster, who recognises full well that his England international prospects would be enhanced by playing in his homeland. Only one year into a four-year deal, any suitor would have to pay top whack to prise him from Celtic. And that side of the equation, the “strategy” as Lennon acknowledges, means the club will probably want to cash in on some of the gems they have polished up in the past two years. Were Wanyama, Hooper and Forster to depart over the summer then Celtic, though seriously weakened on the pitch, would be in clover off it to the tune of some £25 million. Through their scouting network under John Park, Lennon would back them to find suitable replacements in undervalued markets.
Yet, this is an approach that naturally becomes more difficult the more successful you are. In plucking Beram Kayal and Efe Ambrose from the Israeli league for under £3m combined, other clubs have no doubt been alerted to possibilities within that set-up. Maybe the next time Celtic dip their toe into central American waters, any selling club will make it hotter for them because they know how quickly Honduran Emilio Izaguirre’s worth soared following his £650,000 move to Glasgow. It would seem inconceivable that there is another 19-year-old out there worth less than £1m who could so immediately demonstrate he is a £10m-talent as Wanyama has done. Meanwhile, Celtic are sure to be quoted double the £2m they paid for Hooper if they identify another one-time non-league goalscorer with enormous potential.
There is a upside, though. If Celtic lose players to English Premier League clubs of decent status, they could develop a reputation as a perfect gateway club to journey on to that promised land for up-and-coming players.
South Korean Ki Sung-Yeung, now a regular with Swansea City as he never latterly was for Celtic, made the Glasgow club £4m inside 18 months by plotting his career in such fashion.
Like most clubs in modern football, Lennon acknowledges he can expect to overhaul his squad every 18 months to two years. “The strategy is to bring them in, develop them, and sell them on,” he says. “I quite like doing it but sometimes it is frustrating because you see good players wanting to go and progress their careers and you can’t stand in their way.
“If you can find them [the gems] then brilliant. But have we been fortunate or have we been good in what we have done? I would like to think it is because we have been good and I hope we can maintain that consistency and recruit players the right way. We will try to keep a core. What I would like to do, having spoken to Alex Ferguson about the [Ryan] Giggses and [Paul] Scholeses of this world, is keep a few players here with longevity who are around the club and understand it, and who can interact with [new] players and develop them into the squad quickly. There are some players who are happy here and want to stay here and we are quite happy for them to do that.”
Into that bracket patently comes such as the Scottish core of Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons, James Forrest, Tony Watt and, it would appear, others in the mould of Georgios Samaras, Joe Ledley and Kelvin Wilson. These men seem to have a bond, developed or natural, with Celtic that suggests they will not as easily tire of the often grinding nature of domestic duties resulting from the club’s sole superpower status.