SIR Alex Ferguson came to Celtic Park during the transfer window, watched Gary Hooper play and score, and then sat down and discussed the striker with Neil Lennon.
Those are the facts, but the impression is misleading. In the course of 40 minutes of football chat between the managers of Manchester United and Celtic – a friendship is growing between them – Hooper was only a part of it, and Ferguson's admiration for the Englishman will not extend to submitting a bid for him.
Ferguson read a eulogy at Sean Fallon's funeral mass on Wednesday having taken in Celtic's defeat of Dundee United the previous evening as a guest of the club. "He actually enjoyed the game and won money on us for a change," said Lennon, who will lead his players into Hampden tomorrow for the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final against St Mirren. "He normally calls me up to say we cost him a few quid but I'm delighted to report that he won a few on a bet. He took in the game as a guest of the club and came in to see us afterwards. He was in great form.
Loading article content
"I have huge admiration for him. He came in and spoke to us for 30-40 minutes on football, but he didn't put any bids in. We talked about Juventus [Celtic's upcoming Champions League opponents] but not in any great detail. We asked about Paul Pogba [the 19-year-old French midfielder] who is now at Juve and who he had at United. He gave us a few steers on that. He thinks the tie is pretty even. He didn't speak about Victor Wanyama but he spoke about Gary. He said he was well looked after in the centre-forward area, but he was very impressed with his performance."
Lennon can sometimes be exasperated by endless questioning about Hooper but yesterday he was content to confirm that there had been no renewed contact from Norwich City, the club who have submitted two unsuccessful bids so far. The window closes on Thursday evening. "I think things will hot up in the next three or four days; it normally does," said Lennon. "It will be Thursday at 11pm and we're waiting for it to close.
"Hooper hasn't let it affect him as he's playing great. I've always maintained, and he has to me, that he's happy here. All we wanted to do was look after him in terms of offering him a new contract. The contract is still there if he wants it. He has 18 months to go and if he's here after the window closes, and I'm pretty sure he will be, we can look at his situation again in the summer.
"I don't see why he didn't sign it when it was put to him in October. He'd have been a little bit richer these past few months and the situation would be the same. We want him to be here to play Juventus, to win the league and the cups and then review the contract in the summer. We won't stand in his way if the right club comes in and the money is right. I wouldn't do that with any of the players."
Lennon is working on a couple of deals to bring players in before the window closes because next season's European qualifiers start in July. "If we can bring players in and bed them in over the next three months, then they know what is coming for the start of next season," he explained.
Tom Rogic will be back in Glasgow on Monday, having returned to Australia to complete the formalities of his work permit, but there has been no movement on Celtic's interest in Juan Agudelo, the American striker. Lennon also explained why Mo Bangura had been loaned to Elfsborg. "It signals that it would have been difficult for him to play here over the next four or five months. We are giving him an opportunity to play football, rather than be a squad player or warm the bench. It hasn't worked for Mo yet, but he still has a year or two left on his deal. He hasn't played much football and there may be others going out on loan between now and the end of January, where we feel they may need game-time. But they are still our players and we are doing this for a reason – to make sure they come back better."
Celtic are firm favourites to take care of St Mirren tomorrow and reach their third consecutive League Cup final, although their recent record at Hampden is unimpressive: four wins and four defeats in eight visits, including last season's surprise League Cup final loss to Kilmarnock. "Listen, we keep getting there and that's the important thing, whether it be semi finals or finals. We really would like to get to this one, and having lost the last two finals, go one better. But we have to overcome St Mirren first and that won't be easy."
The competition has a heightened significance for Celtic because it amounts to one of the foundations of a potential treble, a feat only Jock Stein and Martin O'Neill have achieved at the club. "When you are going well in all the competitions, the more the talk starts about the treble," Lennon said. "But it's a very difficult thing to do and I know that from experience as a player and the last two seasons as a manager."
A decision will be taken on Kris Commons after training today but Fraser Forster, James Forrest and Paddy McCourt are out. Forster should resume training next week and be fine for Juventus. Miku and Anthony Stokes will be given first-team football sooner rather than later.