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Lennon primed to fend off bids for 'priceless' striker

CELTIC are looking forward to a break rather than a separation.

Neil Lennon is confident he can persuade Gary Hooper to sign a contract extension. Picture: SNS
Neil Lennon is confident he can persuade Gary Hooper to sign a contract extension. Picture: SNS

The SPL leaders have five more games until the start of a 16-day rest between fixtures next month, when the Clydesdale Bank Premier League goes into its first mini winter shutdown for a decade. Manager Neil Lennon will use that period to take his squad to an overseas training camp as well as dealing with the inevitable transfer issues which arise during a signing window.

The break is welcome for Lennon, given that his team have already played 30 matches in four competitions since August 1, with additional international games for most of them. But the separation he is desperate to avoid is between the club and Gary Hooper. He is very optimistic about the 24-year-old signing a contract extension rather than being lured away by another club, and spoke about him in glowing terms yesterday.

"He's a goalscorer and I think they're priceless. Not only that, I also think he is a pretty intelligent player. He's got a great first touch and he can bring other people into the game. He has scored at every level: Champions League, UEFA Cup, Old Firm games . . . big, big games. He has produced time and again, so I think he is one of the best strikers we have had here for quite a while. I don't think he's far away from getting an England call-up."

England's next game is a friendly against Brazil at Wembley on February 6. Lennon's intention is to safely husband Hooper through the transfer window so that he remains Celtic's player on that date rather than being seduced by any potential bid from a Barclays Premier League club.

The Celtic manager gave a measured analysis of why, in his opinion, Hooper's career would be better served by staying where he is rather than moving to, say, Southampton, who were again linked with him this week.

"I'm an admirer of their manager [Nigel Adkins]. I think he's built a real solid foundation at Southampton. Would it appeal to Gary? I don't know. He's worked with Nigel before, so there is that sort of knowing the manager. But to leave with all the things going on here and go to what could be a lower end Premier League team, I think that would be a backward step.

"The other thing is that if it's a Champions League club that comes in for him he can't play in the Champions League again this season anyway, so that would work in our favour. I will rebuff the offers, unless it is an astronomical one that suits everybody. I wouldn't put a price on him but it would have to be significant.

"We've given him a great platform. He's grown. He's still only 24 and people forget that, to the point where he is more on less on the verge of being in the England squad. People would have said that is virtually impossible, they would have said that about Fraser [Forster] as well, but it shows how far this squad has come that people are really sitting up and taking notice of them now.

"I know there will be people from other clubs coming for them, but I keep saying that when you leave here it's not the same elsewhere. The money is a huge carrot, obviously, but at this stage of their career the football is most important. The money will come anyway, the more successful you are."

A bug restricted Hooper's involvement to the final 25 minutes against Arbroath in Celtic's midweek Scottish Cup replay win, but Lennon intends to give him plenty of football in the forthcoming five matches, starting against St Mirren at Parkhead tomorrow. They are then at home to Ross County on December 22, at Dundee on Boxing Day and Hibs on December 29, and then at home to Motherwell on January 2. They return from the break at home to Hearts on January 19.

The rest will serve as a natural punctuation mark in their season, the end of one phase and, Lennon hopes, the start of another with one significant improvement. They remain in contention on four fronts – leading the league, in the last 16 of the Champions League and still in both domestic cups – yet they have not won a league game at Parkhead since October 7.

"For some reason we're not piecing performances together on a consistent basis at home, yet the Champions League games haven't been a problem. It's definitely a psychological thing, so I'm going to really work on that at training.

"I don't want to make a huge issue out of the home form but I want us to start putting wins together. The atmosphere is different to away games. We have 40-odd thousand season-ticket holders but they aren't all coming, they can't afford to.

"If you look at all the top clubs in Europe, it's the same for them. When I was watching Benfica they maybe had 30,000 for home games. In Italy, you're seeing half-empty stadiums. So it's not exclusive to us. People just can't afford it, especially at this time of year. Maybe we need to start the fans going, instead of the fans getting us going."

CELTIC are looking forward to a break rather than a separation. The SPL leaders have five more games until the start of a 16-day rest between fixtures next month, when the Clydesdale Bank Premier League goes into its first mini winter shutdown for a decade. Manager Neil Lennon will use that period to take his squad to an overseas training camp as well as dealing with the inevitable transfer issues which arise during a signing window.

The break is welcome for Lennon, given that his team have already played 30 matches in four competitions since August 1, with additional international games for most of them. But the separation he is desperate to avoid is between the club and Gary Hooper. He is very optimistic about the 24-year-old signing a contract extension rather than being lured away by another club, and spoke about him in glowing terms yesterday.

"He's a goalscorer and I think they're priceless. Not only that, I also think he is a pretty intelligent player. He's got a great first touch and he can bring other people into the game. He has scored at every level: Champions League, UEFA Cup, Old Firm games . . . big, big games. He has produced time and again, so I think he is one of the best strikers we have had here for quite a while. I don't think he's far away from getting an England call-up."

England's next game is a friendly against Brazil at Wembley on February 6. Lennon's intention is to safely husband Hooper through the transfer window so that he remains Celtic's player on that date rather than being seduced by any potential bid from a Barclays Premier League club.

The Celtic manager gave a measured analysis of why, in his opinion, Hooper's career would be better served by staying where he is rather than moving to, say, Southampton, who were again linked with him this week.

"I'm an admirer of their manager [Nigel Adkins]. I think he's built a real solid foundation at Southampton. Would it appeal to Gary? I don't know. He's worked with Nigel before, so there is that sort of knowing the manager. But to leave with all the things going on here and go to what could be a lower end Premier League team, I think that would be a backward step.

"The other thing is that if it's a Champions League club that comes in for him he can't play in the Champions League again this season anyway, so that would work in our favour. I will rebuff the offers, unless it is an astronomical one that suits everybody. I wouldn't put a price on him but it would have to be significant.

"We've given him a great platform. He's grown. He's still only 24 and people forget that, to the point where he is more on less on the verge of being in the England squad. People would have said that is virtually impossible, they would have said that about Fraser [Forster] as well, but it shows how far this squad has come that people are really sitting up and taking notice of them now.

"I know there will be people from other clubs coming for them, but I keep saying that when you leave here it's not the same elsewhere. The money is a huge carrot, obviously, but at this stage of their career the football is most important. The money will come anyway, the more successful you are."

A bug restricted Hooper's involvement to the final 25 minutes against Arbroath in Celtic's midweek Scottish Cup replay win, but Lennon intends to give him plenty of football in the forthcoming five matches, starting against St Mirren at Parkhead tomorrow. They are then at home to Ross County on December 22, at Dundee on Boxing Day and Hibs on December 29, and then at home to Motherwell on January 2. They return from the break at home to Hearts on January 19.

The rest will serve as a natural punctuation mark in their season, the end of one phase and, Lennon hopes, the start of another with one significant improvement. They remain in contention on four fronts – leading the league, in the last 16 of the Champions League and still in both domestic cups – yet they have not won a league game at Parkhead since October 7.

"For some reason we're not piecing performances together on a consistent basis at home, yet the Champions League games haven't been a problem. It's definitely a psychological thing, so I'm going to really work on that at training.

"I don't want to make a huge issue out of the home form but I want us to start putting wins together. The atmosphere is different to away games. We have 40-odd thousand season-ticket holders but they aren't all coming, they can't afford to.

"If you look at all the top clubs in Europe, it's the same for them. When I was watching Benfica they maybe had 30,000 for home games. In Italy, you're seeing half-empty stadiums. So it's not exclusive to us. People just can't afford it, especially at this time of year. Maybe we need to start the fans going, instead of the fans getting us going."

* Celtic's Champions League heroics will have another financial consequence after it emerged that the club are to pay out around £250,000 to Scunthorpe United as part of their deal to sign Gary Hooper.

The clause, to be activated if the club achieved progress to the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition, was inserted into the transfer when the 24-year-old arrived at Celtic Park in the summer of 2010. Celtic achieved that target with a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow last week, in which Hooper scored the opening goal.

David Beeby, Scunthorpe's general manager, last night confirmed the windfall from Celtic, albeit without formally stating the amount. However, it is understood the figure is around the quarter of a million pounds mark. Beeby said: "We have received a payment, though I can't confirm exactly what that payment is. We're under an obligation within the agreement not to reveal any of the details."

The payment is unlikely to cause sleepless nights to the Scottish champions, whose Champions League progress this term has netted them around £24m. Scunthorpe are also thought to have a sell-on clause for the striker, who has been linked with moves to the likes of Southampton, Liverpool and NewcastleUnited as he continues to make waves in European and domestic competition.

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