THE old year ended with a sting at a bitter Easter Road but Neil Lennon looks forward to a new year that starts with a top-of-the-table match and a drive to recruit reinforcements for what he intends to be a period of progress.
The Celtic manager knows his side have the chance to move into the break with a strong advantage in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League if his side can defeat Motherwell today but he is keen to strengthen a side that has stuttered at home while singing tunes of glory in Europe. "We've been working away in the background for a couple of months," Lennon said. "We've not really contacted anybody yet because we want to be sure. So it might be a case of getting out and looking at players before we make our final decision."
The Celtic manager will return early from the mid-season break in Spain to watch targets in England. "It's a tough market but we're an attractive proposition compared to this time last year," he said. "We've worked that scenario quite well. So if there's an option to take it and the player suits us then we'll do that."
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The Northern Irishman has ruled out pursuing "marquee signing". What, then, is his priority? "A left-sided player, either a winger or a left-back, because we definitely are short in that department," he said. Lennon also pointed out that the squad would be reinforced by the return of injured players.
Asked what his wish was for 2013, he replied: "Progression, like everybody else. Excitement, I want us to keep playing the football we have been playing. I want to try to progress these players on to being even better than they are at the minute. And I would like to see a few of my players healthy, like [James] Forrest and [Kris] Commons and [Anthony] Stokes, people who can entertain people."
There has been speculation over the future of Stokes at Celtic in the wake of a club reprimand over the player's attendance at a tribute night in honour of Alan Ryan – a criminal with links to the Real IRA – who was shot and killed on a Dublin street in September. Stokes has just six months of his contract to run, though the club have an option to extend it. "We've missed Stokesy, we've missed his goals," said Lennon. "And if he'd have been there against Hibs the outcome might have been a bit different."
Stokes has been missing from the team since an early season injury and now must fight for his future. "He has a bit of football to play but he's quite capable of doing that," said the Celtic manager.
Lennon also indicated he was looking to rebuff any bids during the transfer window, with suitors already eyeing such as Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama. "My ambition is to keep this group together for the remainder of the season and see what the summer brings. We have got a lot to look forward to," he said.
Despite the 1-0 defeat to Hibs, he praised his team, saying: "They are playing for the club, no doubt about that. They are a very close-knit group and they are very proud of what they have achieved so far. But we haven't won anything yet."
Celtic are still in four competitions this season and the pursuit of the league would be made easier by victory over a Motherwell side Lennon admires immensely. "Our aim is to be as far ahead of everyone else as we can going into the break and that will mean beating Motherwell," he said. "There was a disappointed dressing-room at Easter Road and I was pleased about that and with the attitude of the players. [Efe] Ambrose, Wanyama, and [Georgios] Samaras played very powerfully. There were a few off colour, but you can't play well every week."
He has sympathy for Stuart McCall, who is resigned to losing at least one player, likely to be Jamie Murphy, during this transfer window and to watch possibly eight more depart in the summer. "He's swimming against the tide but he has done a brilliant job and that should be recognised," said Lennon.
"He had them second or third last year and they're right up there again with a small squad. The brand of football they play is great to watch. They were there at the start and they had a dip and now they are coming back again. So whatever he's doing or whatever they have in the water down there, it's working for them."
He described the task facing McCall in facing up to an exodus of players as "impossible" but admitted the situation of Celtic at the top of the league was "healthy". That condition check has the capacity to change significantly either way this afternoon.