Neil Lennon could not hide his anguish as Celtic went out of the group stages of the UEFA Champions League limply and without any of the fight and determination which has characterised recent campaigns in the illustrious competition.
The Hoops boss found himself competing in a group that contained four teams who could all claim to be previous winners in what was quickly dubbed the group of death. But with poor results against AC Milan, Barcelona and Ajax, there was no parachute into the Europa League and Celtic’s European adventure was snuffed out before the final group game was played in the Nou Camp.
If anything, the campaign highlighted the chronic shortage of quality within the Celtic camp, with the likes of Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper, who departed the club last summer, never having quite being replaced with players of similar quality.
In six group games Celtic scored just three goals – a penalty, a deflection and a late consolation when they were being humbled in the Nou Camp – an obvious reflection on their crying need for an out-and-out striker.
Despite his obvious frustrations at dealing with a restricted budget, Lennon is in no rush to down tools and cross the border into the English Premiership where the riches are incomparable with anything that the SPL has to offer. “I love my job,” said Lennon. “Everybody is asking me ‘Are you looking down to England?’ Nobody’s picked up the phone. Nobody’s shown any interest. I can’t sit here and go ‘Yeah, I’ll go and manage in the Premier League whenever it suits me’. It doesn’t work that way.”
Lennon explained his disappointment at not having landed the quality of striker he was looking for in the summer and explained why the Judi Bola Online24Jam Terpercaya club are currently working with players who seem long-term projects rather than ones who can make an immediate impact.
“We worked quite hard on [Artjoms] Rudnevs [of Hamburg] and got quite far down the line with that one but, in the end, he made it clear he didn’t want to come. That only gave us about two weeks to get players in.
“I went to watch [Teemu] Pukki and I liked him. I think he’ll come good for us but I knew he wouldn’t score the same volume of goals as Hooper scored for us. Now I need to go out and find that type. That’s not taking anything away from the players I have here because they’ve been brilliant for us. But, to improve, I need to find someone who will be really consistent at all levels.
“We did try, we looked at three or four players, we tried to get a real goalscorer in and we were prepared to pay the money but for one reason or another [it didn’t happen]. We have to look at that again. There’s no question that we need a replacement for Hooper because we haven’t got one yet.”
It’s not just the European market that Lennon may search as he tries to bolster his squad. “I know Dundee United have some very good young players and there are others floating around we like the look of. The players [here] know the environment so maybe we’ll look at British types rather than always looking abroad. British types might suit us better.”
Meanwhile, keeper Fraser Forster could be tempted to quit the club in order to try and force his way into England’s World Cup squad this summer. The keeper’s best chance of maintaining his profile and his place in Roy Hodgson’s squad was by showcasing himself on the European stage, something that has been put to bed now this season.
“Obviously I’m contracted to Celtic and I will be for the foreseeable future, I imagine,” he said. “It is just important that I do the best I can do, whether it is for Celtic or whoever.
“I’ve just got to be positive and do everything I can between now and the end of the season to try and force my way onto the plane with the England squad,” the former Newcastle United player said.
Ally McCoist is fooling no-one. The Rangers boss has attempted to talk up how tough life has been in League One for the Ibrox club this season, but the bare facts clearly contradict him.
Rangers are coasting it; they have yet to drop a point in the league with only a hiccup against Forfar in the Scottish League Cup blotting their copybook. Off the field it is a different story with civil war continuing to rage in the boardroom but on it, things have been plain sailing all the way. The only real pressure on McCoist may be that there is a feeling that Rangers need to prove themselves by winning the Scottish Cup. They’ll play Dunfermline in February in the fifth round of the competition but the Gers boss is reluctant to talk up what the tournament means to his side.
“I would put us in the bracket as having the same chance as one of the teams in the top flight outwith Celtic,” said McCoist.
“It makes sense to me. It’s not rocket science. We’ve signed boys from Motherwell, Dundee United, Kilmarnock – I don’t see automatically how you become favourites to win anything when they were never favourites before. “With the greatest respect to them, they’re doing great but they’ve not suddenly turned into world-class international players. We’ve signed free transfers. “I would accept the fact we’re on a level with clubs in the Premiership outwith Celtic.” Winning League One, then the Championship, and getting into the top flight remains McCoist’s overriding ambition, and he said that while he might sign players in January’s transfer window, it would be for league reasons and not just to boost cup chances.
“We would maybe need it to maintain the level of results we’re getting in the league,” said McCoist. “Andy Little will be out longer term and that only leaves us Jon Daly and Nicky Clark as forwards. So straight away you would say you’re short staffed in that department. “It’s vitally important to give the fans something they enjoy watching. Obviously winning is the most important thing, but we’re lucky in that we’ve got 36,000 season tickets so that in itself should determine we have a higher budget than the vast majority of the clubs in the country.
“So I think it’s our job, within the means of the budget, to give the best possible product on the park. “You can spin the wages thing either way – we’re down 60 to 70 per cent, but at the same time they’re massively higher than anyone else, which I fully appreciate. So it’s about getting the balance right.” As the league run continues, so too does the talk of a ‘perfect’ season. “It genuinely doesn’t cross my mind, honest to God,” he insisted. ” I just think that it’s not going to happen – it won’t happen. For any team in any league to even think that – and I’m not playing mind games here – it’s just not feasible in the modern game.
“The proof for me would be the games we’ve had already at Stenhousemuir, Forfar and Brechin. I really don’t think that there’s much between any of the other teams in this division and the majority of them will fancy their chances against us on their own patch.”
Dundee United may not be able to keep Ryan Gauld for too long, but the teenager who has lit up the SPFL this season has insisted that he is in no rush to head elsewhere too soon.
Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have all been linked with the Dundee United playmaker and, in case anyone thought that stellar list incomplete, the tag of ‘Baby Messi’ has also been hung from the diminutive 18-year-old’s shoulders.
“The comparison to Messi is quite laughable, but it is good to read,” laughed the youngster. “I don’t think about it – I read it then forget about it straight away. I look up to Messi because he’s the best in the world. Every young boy should be watching and trying to emulate him in training. Don’t be an ordinary person, go and try something special.” The steady stream of Premier League scouts flocking to Tannadice has led to an assumption that the youngster will be lured south imminently but, although money may yet talk, he seems more inclined to wait for a more cultured opportunity to present itself.
At United, Gauld has assumed a central role that allows him to dictate United’s attacking play and float in whichever direction his instincts suggests. A bigger stage inevitably awaits but having recently signed a contract extension that ties him to Tannadice until May 2016, he is happy to bide his time and wait for the right move.
“I need to sit down and think what’s best for me in the future,’ he said. “Growing up, I watched the Spanish Leagues and prefer that style. Getting the ball down and being patient with the build-up play. In England, it’s maybe more direct. If you are a winger, you are expected to take on a full-back and get a cross in. Abroad, you can turn out, keep the ball and just keep the attack going. You also see players who are smaller in stature.
“In England, it’s more athletes. Being a smaller guy, I need to think about what’s best for me and what’s best around me and I think being abroad is the best culture of football for me.
“I’ve got to think what’s best for me even four or five years down the line. If I was to go down there, I’d have to think what my chances are of first-team football, if I was stuck out in the reserves how much I would enjoy that? I can’t just think: ‘It’s a big club, so I’ll jump at the chance to sign for them.'”