NEIL Lennon has been voted the SPFL Premiership manager of the month for March.
These monthly awards naturally tend to be decided primarily on the basis of results, and Celtic's four wins and a draw, with 17 goals scored and only two conceded, were enough to secure a third consecutive league title for the club last month. It was as Lennon spoke about club issues at Lennoxtown yesterday, though, that reminders emerged of how much more there is to the job than mere wins, draws and losses.
First he spoke at length about Leigh Griffiths. Then, effortlessly, the media's line of inquiry switched to another of his players who has caused him a minor headache, Biram Kayal. The Israeli midfielder was once one of Celtic and Lennon's crown jewels. Earlier this week Kayal gave an interview in the Israeli media - inevitably it made its way back to Scotland - in which he said he no longer enjoyed football in this country, bemoaning its pace, power and lack of technique. There were also headlines from the fact he blamed Rangers' Lee McCulloch for his first serious injury setback in 2011.
The interview cast Kayal as an unhappy, frustrated figure. He made a dazzling early impression at Celtic after signing from Maccabi Haifa in 2010 but that injury, and then a broken foot suffered against AC Milan in a Champions League group game last November, cut down his effectiveness for Lennon. The manager was unamused by the content of this week's interview. Kayal, he said, had got it into his head that he was liable to suffer further injuries. Unless he addressed that mental issue he would not be as effective for Celtic as he was in his opening season, said his manager.
"I spoke to him this morning," said Lennon when asked about the interview. "He's very upset about it because he feels that a lot of them are misconstrued. My only problem with Biram and the interview is that he didn't have club consent [to speak to any reporter]. That is always a problem when you do interviews away from this country. I think there was a bit of spin put on some of the quotes. Again, he will be disciplined by myself on that.
"I don't believe he meant to be disparaging to the Scottish game. He may have his own personal views on the McCulloch tackle and that is his right, but I don't want them aired in public either. You keep that to yourself. I've told him that. He will be dealt with internally."
Lennon accepted that Kayal was at a "crossroads" in his Celtic career. "He was looking more like himself towards the back half of last year, and then he had another really bad injury against AC Milan that's kept him out for two or three months. He's found it really hard to get back in, such has been the form of Charlie Mulgrew, Stefan Johansen, Scott Brown and Nir Biton, but he will play between now and the end of the season. There's no question the injuries have had a psychologically detrimental effect on him. He needs to get past that. He's fit and training well. I think that player is still there, he just needs to find it. I think it's more psychological than physical."
There were glimpses of Kayal at his best when he played well and scored in Celtic's only Champions League group stage win this season, at home to Ajax in October. "I think at that stage he was starting to be the Kayal of old. I just think the injury against Milan set him back again. But he's fit now, he's training, and he may start against Dundee United." Celtic are at Tannadice at lunchtime today.
"I don't know if the issue is fear of tackles, lack of confidence, or possibly both," said Lennon. "He's said 'I need to play' and I told him he needs to show his best form in training. He has to try and knock his way past these guys [ahead of him in the squad]. If he gets the chance to play he has to show us the Kayal of old. He's only 25. I haven't seen the ruthlessness in him for a while. It was starting to manifest itself again in the latter stages of last year up until his injury. I do believe that player of old is still in there."
Meanwhile, Lennon said he would like to see Liam Henderson make enough appearances to qualify for an SPFL Premiership winner's medal. The 17-year-old has played five times and would need to appear in five of their remaining six games to reach the threshold of 10 required for an automatic medal, although it is at Celtic's discretion to give him one of the batch they will receive from the governing body.
Lennon said there had been no contact from Belgian clubs Zulte Waregem or KV Oostende about Tony Watt, with whom they have been linked, and that his intention was to have the 20-year-old striker back for the start of Celtic's pre-season training on June 24. Watt will soon conclude his season-long loan at Lierse.
Despite reported interest in goalkeepers Lukasz Fabianski of Arsenal and Fernando Monetti from Gimnasia in Argentina, Lennon said they were not players he was pursuing.