INTERVIEW Celtic manager is already thinking about his squad for next season, finds Michael Grant

CELTIC are prepared to offer Emilio Izaguirre and Biram Kayal improved contracts this summer as reward for their excellent first seasons in Scottish football. Their manager, Neil Lennon, purred about the contribution the pair of them had made throughout the campaign yesterday, and admitted giving them better deals would make it easier to hold on to them.

Both the Honduran left-back and the Israeli midfielder – signed for a combined £1.6m – have been superb for Lennon and each has been linked with possible moves to the English Premier League this summer. Although neither player has expressed any wish to leave, Lennon is realistic. They have become more important to Celtic than even the manager may have expected, and therefore more attractive to bigger and richer clubs. Lennon is willing to reward them accordingly.

“Is it a concern that Izaguirre and Kayal could leave? Of course. We just have to wait and see at the moment, it’s all speculation,” said Lennon. “But I don’t have to sell anyone, not at all. We’ll sit down with these players at the end of the season and maybe make them improved offers and take it from there.

“We’d like to think we could try to keep them happy with better deals. Otherwise it would be hard for us to keep them if a big bid does come in. But we’ve had nothing concrete in terms of interest. It doesn’t surprise me if there is interest because they are fabulous footballers but I’d be reluctant to sell them.”

The thought of losing Izaguirre or Kayal would distress many Celtic supporters but, if it ever came to that, Lennon would have substantial money to re-invest. It was the sale of Aiden McGeady for £9.5m last summer which helped fund the 11 signings he made to transform Tony Mowbray’s failing squad.

“Aiden McGeady went for a big fee which we felt made business sense for the football club,” he continued. “All that money from his sale is being put back into the team. We spent about £10m or £11m but I think in net spending terms there was extra cash left over. We are still in the black in that regard.

“You worry, losing someone like Aiden. With Artur Boruc and Marc-Antoine Fortune leaving, we were letting go of some real quality. So you worry if it might hurt you later in the season but so far we’ve covered it all very well. Aiden was an excellent player for Celtic and he had been for three or four seasons. But we felt that if we could keep Shaun Maloney fit, and with someone like James Forrest there, we could take the sale. It made sense. Keeping McGeady might even have stunted Forrest’s development, who knows?”

Whether or not they win the league – their next five games will determine that, starting at home to Dundee United tomorrow lunchtime – Lennon will have a quieter close season than a year ago. Less work will need to be done on the squad and the turnover of players will be much lower. Central defender Kelvin Wilson and full-back Adam Matthews have signed on pre-contract agreements from Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City respectively and, amid all the other issues crowding his thoughts these days, Lennon is considering other targets.

“We’re working away in the background on some targets. I don’t see there being as much of a turnaround of the squad as last summer, hopefully nothing like that because we’re pretty happy with most of the players. Your signing policy is only vindicated by results. We’ve a chance to go top of the league with our game in hand and we’ve reached two cup finals. So there has been a huge improvement and the players who have come into Celtic have done very well. The way some of them have settled is a bonus. Whether it is vindicated or not, I am happy with them.”

No manager can allow a squad to become bloated, though. He has had the difficult task of deciding to release several Celtic teenagers who have just delivered the SFA Youth Cup, to go with the Scottish Under-19 League title.

“We are letting a few of them go, yes. Again, the reasoning behind that is we don’t want to stunt their development. I feel if a number of them were here for another year they might not get any chance of a game with the squad we have. It is very difficult. I know because I have been there myself. Manchester City let me go as a kid and, at that time, you think it is the end of the world. I feel we have as talented a first-team squad as anyone, so there are not too many opportunities. It is very hard telling a kid he has to leave, one of the hardest things you can do. They even knew for three or four weeks that they would be leaving and did not let it deter them from winning a league and cup double.”

The senior version of the double is still within Lennon’s sights. Tomorrow’s game could take Celtic three points closer to their first trophy for two years. Joe Ledley, Freddie Ljungberg (who has suffered a calf injury) and Cha Du-Ri are out but there is adequate strength in depth.

“You can’t think about five games, you have to think about one, and that’s obviously Dundee United,” said Lennon. “It’s about not getting anxious and trying to get over the line too quickly. You just have to let it run its course. But I think our players have fixed their minds now for the run-in. They’re in a good place at the moment.”