O’Neill sends Tebily on his way

MARTIN O’Neill gave the Celtic transfer kitty for next season a small boost yesterday when he off-loaded Olivier Tebily to Birmingham City for £700,000.

The defender has struggled to make an impact at the club since being signed by John Barnes from Sheffield United for 1.2million in June 1999, and the club were happy to take a 500,000 loss on the player.

Tebily was part of the team that suffered one of the biggest cup shocks in Scottish history when Inverness Caledonian Thistle won 3-1 at Parkhead in February 2000. O’Neill picked him only four times last season and although he began the current campaign he was only filling in until new signing Bobo Balde regained full fitness.

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Steve Bruce, the Birmingham manager, had been in charge of United when Tebily came to Bramall Lane via French football. But when Bruce walked out on the club United quickly cashed in on their player by selling him to Celtic. The 26-year-old had two years of his deal still to run and Celtic have negotiated a sell-on clause should Birmingham punt him for a profit.

Even though it was no secret O’Neill simply did not want to keep Tebily he still had some kind words for the player.

"Olivier’s signed for Birmingham because he wants to play first-team football and I can understand that," he said. The simple truth is I couldn’t guarantee him a regular place in the side here, and that’s what he needs at this stage in his career.

"He started this season very well for us, but he lost his place after picking up a couple of knocks and was never able to get it back again. But he’s a very nice lad and someone who’s done us a turn on more than one occasion.

"There’s no doubt he’s a very strong defender and I’m hoping that this move will bring out the very best in him."

Meanwhile, goalkeeper Rob Douglas is looking forward to this evening’s Hampden Park showdown with Ayr United.

The First Division side were beaten there by Rangers in last week’s CIS Insurance Cup final, with the Ibrox side having already defeated Celtic in the semis.

Douglas said: "We wanted to do the treble but obviously that’s not possible so the double would be the next best thing."

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Celtic almost had the championship wrapped up before the game but Rangers’ midweek demolition of Kilmarnock meant the celebrations must go on hold. Celtic won the treble last season but Douglas argued the current campaign had actually been an improvement.

He said: "I think we have been more consistent this season. In quite a few games we have been a goal down and showed our commitment by battling away and coming back at the end, even one or two minutes into injury-time. There’s a hunger there and the boys never give up."

Ayr United’s Brian McLaughlin will be hoping Douglas has an off day as he tries to make up for the disappointment of last week. McLaughlin almost opened the scoring in the first half against Rangers with a delightful chip and only a fine save from Stefan Klos denied him.

The former Celtic winger admits it will be one of the most emotional games of his career, as he prepares to take on his former club.

The 27-year-old was a Parkhead player from the day he left school, signing professional terms in July 1992, and will be playing in the opposing side to them for the first time in his life. Nevertheless, he is out to halt O’Neill’s side and help Ayr reach an unprecedented second successive domestic final.

The Somerset Park side only appeared in their first final in their 92-year history, last week in the CIS Cup, where they went down 4-0 despite putting in a brave performance.

But McLaughlin insists this week has been too much of a whirlwind for the Ayrshire side to get down-hearted about last Sunday’s outcome, with the prospect of meeting the other half of the Old Firm an enticing one for the Ayr players.

He said: "We were disappointed after Sunday, but there’s no doubt we will pick ourselves up for the Celtic game.

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"We won’t dwell on the CIS Cup final result and, if the truth be told, we don’t need any motivation against Celtic, because it’s such a massive game for the club and the fans.

"Personally, it will be a strange feeling for me because, if selected, it will be the first time I will have played against Celtic since leaving. I was there from the age of 16, after joining straight from school, until I was about 24.

"I grew up at the club and had some great times there, and it will be an odd feeling going out in front of the Celtic fans again. I spent so many years there and, although most of the playing staff has changed, it’s almost the same backroom team and it will be great to see the likes of physio Brian Scott again.

"Guys like Jackie McNamara, Morten Wieghorst and Tom Boyd are still playing for the club and I was also at Celtic when Henrik Larsson was there, although that was towards the end of my Celtic career."

McLaughlin knows what it’s like to be a Scottish Cup winner; he was a member of the Celtic side which defeated Airdrie 1-0 in 1995 courtesy of Pierre van Hooijdonk’s goal. The chance to reach those giddy heights again is certain to spur on the diminutive winger.