NEIL Lennon is not exactly standing with a handful of boarding passes ready to decide who can be packed off on holiday for a while, but it is nearing the time when some Celtic players are about to be told they can put their feet up.
When the SPFL Premiership title is won - which could be as soon as Wednesday night if Aberdeen drop points tomorrow and the champions then win at Partick Thistle - the Celtic manager will begin to authorise what he sees as well-earned breaks for some of his senior men.
Celtic have played 45 competitive games this season. Fraser Forster has appeared in 44 of them, Efe Ambrose in 43, Scott Brown in 42, Kris Commons and Emilio Izaguirre in 40, Anthony Stokes in 39, Virgil van Dijk in 38 and Charlie Mulgrew in 35. They are the players with the most obvious claim on some time off, especially those among them who also have had national team commitments.
Loading article content
Celtic did a sort of rota of time off for some of their most experienced players last season - when they won the league early, as they are about to do again - and the decision will soon be taken on which of the current group can be allowed some respite.
Some will always chose to interpret this as something of a slight on the Premiership - as if letting players take holidays while a competition is ongoing comes across as a bit disrespectful - but in fact Lennon's motivation is sensible pragmatism. Their entry to next season's Champions League will be on July 15 or 16. Ambrose, Izaguirre and maybe Forster will have the World Cup this summer. This season began, for Celtic, with a pre-season friendly almost nine months ago. Those who have played most, and who will be relied upon again in this summer's qualifiers, clearly need some time to recharge their batteries.
Some reactions are common when lucky colleagues get time off their work: envy and jealousy, mainly. For footballers different rules can apply. Brown, Commons or Mulgrew being excused could not be seen by Liam Henderson as anything other than the opening of a door. Henderson is the prime candidate to benefit because he is exactly the sort of player who could nudge his way into the team for the remaining games and string together a run of appearances. He made his third for Celtic against St Mirren and it was his first senior experience of Parkhead. He is an assured, direct central midfielder whose presence on the field belies his age: just 17. This time last season he won the under-20s league title with Celtic. "If I was involved in the squad when the league is won this season it would obviously top that," he said. "Since I was a wee boy I've been watching Celtic on television and coming to games. So it was really special to play my first game at Celtic Park.
"It's brilliant having players like Scott Brown and Stefan Johansen alongside me, both in training and in games. They have been a great help. I played in some pre-season games, but I didn't think I was ready to go into the first team. Physically I wasn't developed enough. So the gaffer waited for me to develop physically and has now put me in the team."
Henderson's father, Nicky, had a respectable career as a midfielder with Falkirk, Partick Thistle and Hamilton Academical among others. "I need to give my dad a mention as one of my heroes when I was growing up. My dad was a brilliant player. He was the biggest influence on my career, along with my mum. The way he talks to me after games is a huge influence on me. He's been part of my football career since I was four, driving me everywhere for games and travelling all over the world to watch me. He is a hard man to please. I don't think I'll ever please him, ever …
"The biggest lesson I've learned so far is not to give the ball away too cheaply. Sometimes I try to rush it a wee bit too much. It's just the way I play. I had a chance to score. It was a sitter, wasn't it? These things happen. I just need to not let it affect me that much. The goals will come. I need to work on goal scoring, I need to stay behind after training and work on finishing."
Henderson ought to have buried his first-half chance but Johansen just before half-time, and Leigh Griffiths and Anthony Stokes in the second half, delivered the champions' comfortable win. When they were poor in clearing first-half crosses St Mirren lacked the quality to punish them. "After their second goal went in we were chasing it a bit," said St Mirren midfielder Kenny McLean. "They got on top of us and it was tough. You are always worried when you are not picking up points but we can take positives from the way we are playing at the moment."
St Mirren, with one win in eight league games, are at home to St Johnstone tomorrow. For Celtic, if results go their way they will be officially champions again the day after tomorrow.