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Lennon can't win until he knows who he is losing

THE next appointment in Neil Lennon's diary is Celtic's penultimate match of the season at St Johnstone tonight, but more important commitments will soon follow.

Celtic manager admits he is not ready to 'push the button' on transfer targets due to uncertainty. Picture: SNs
Celtic manager admits he is not ready to 'push the button' on transfer targets due to uncertainty. Picture: SNs

The manager met with the club's major shareholder, Dermot Desmond, to discuss broad strategy points last month and will soon sit with the chief executive, Peter Lawwell, to talk in greater depth about signing targets.

Celtic's scouting and preparatory work has been ongoing for weeks, even months. Desmond confirmed with Lennon that the business model has not changed: essentially Celtic will sell their most valuable assets when satisfactory bids are received, and will sign, for relatively modest transfer fees, youngish players who can enhance their team before eventually being sold on.

The difficulty this poses for Lennon is that while he knows a player such as Georgios Samaras is about to leave he cannot be so sure about Fraser Forster or Virgil van Dijk, both of whom are much admired. Until he knows who he is losing, he cannot know which positions he must address.

"I haven't even had the opportunity to sit down with Peter yet," said Lennon yesterday. "We talk on the phone but I'll go and see him next week sometime and talk at length. The preparations are in order, it's just about personnel, who might be going and who we might bring in.

"We are looking at players but we haven't pushed the button on any. I was away last week looking at players [he attended a Kaiserslautern versus Union Berlin game in Bundesliga 2] and I'm hoping to get out again this week. [Chief scout] John Park has a list of players as long as your arm, and then others come up out of the blue now and again. It's good to be prepared but we haven't made a decision on any player just yet."

The transfer market is a factor no single club can control. Last year Victor Wanyama left Celtic for Southampton on July 11, they played their first Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville six days later, Gary Hooper signed for Norwich on July 26, the SPFL Premiership started on August 3, and Kelvin Wilson moved to Nottingham Forest six days after that.

Their preparatory work was continually derailed by losing important players. With assets such as Forster and Van Dijk they are powerless to prevent similar stress this summer if clubs come circling over their goalkeeper and centre-half.

Celtic's season ends on Sunday and most of the players return 44 days later, on June 24 (some of those with international commitments will have fewer days off, while others will not return until exiting the World Cup).

The first Champions League qualifying tie is another 21 or 22 days after training begins, on July 15 or 16. "The Champions League takes up your whole focus. Even when you are on holiday you are thinking about it. You think about the qualifiers and you think about trying to get the squad and the balance of the squad right. I really hope we don't lose what we did last year. We lost three of the crown jewels in the qualifying stage and that was very difficult to negotiate. But we did it.

"There's no question I'm not convinced the team at the moment is as good as the team I had last year with Wanyama, Hooper and Kelvin. But there is no question there have been big improvements as the season has gone on.

"Stefan Johansen has done well, Nir Biton we think is going to be a very good player, there's a lot more to come from Leigh Griffiths and hopefully we'll see the best of him next year. The stalwarts of the team - Scott Brown, Fraser Forster, Virgil van Dijk, Kris Commons - have been so consistent."

Desmond and Lawwell have one more individual to worry about losing than Lennon does: the manager himself may be susceptible to an offer. Speculation persists that he is admired by Norwich City and that he is on a four-man shortlist of contenders to replace Chris Hughton, who was dismissed a month ago today.

"I don't take much notice of it, to be fair," said Lennon. "There's going to be a bit of toing and froing over the next few weeks. It's very flattering but I'm concentrating on what I'm doing here. I've got a lot of work ahead of me. A lot of work. It seems like there's no end to it.

"There might be a turnover [of players] again this summer and that's a concern to me in terms of players in and out. It's difficult to find that stability at times.

"Desmond is aware of my position on it. The one thing we are is pretty open with each other. There is no point in hiding anything from each other. Peter is exactly the same. What we have is pretty healthy. When I'm asked I say I am pretty happy where I am. I'm pretty stable.

"There has been no offer, there has been no concrete phonecall or anything like that, so I haven't really had a decision to make on it. I am pretty much focussed on the game here."

After Perth tonight, Celtic receive the SPFL Premiership trophy at home to Dundee United on Sunday. They are on 95 points and 96 goals, with 180 minutes to reach a couple of centuries.

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