Hampden, history and taking a back seat…

On Saturday Celtic will face Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final. The club are on the cusp of historical greatness once again.

For some Celtic players, this could be their last ever outing in the Hoops should they be given a chance to do so. There are also some who have already made their final appearance for the club, but the majority of the team, regardless of their futures, are likely to be at Hampden for what could be a treble treble.

Hearts will of course be out to spoil such an occasion. The Edinburgh side will be competing in their first Scottish Cup Final since 2012.

They won that one in convincing fashion 5-1 against city rivals Hibernian. It was the club’s fourteenth Scottish Cup Final appearance and their eighth win.

Seven years on the task falls to a new team and manager. Craig Levein has never won a trophy as a player or a manager whilst his opposite number, Neil Lennon, has lifted thirteen as a player and seven as a manager.

So Levein is looking to lift his first piece of silverware in management and Lennon is aiming to lift his eighth. And of course, this would also be Celtic’s thirty-nineth Scottish Cup win if the result goes their way.

We’ll see two very different teams to the ones we saw last week at Celtic Park. That game was played out in a very open manner, knowing that nothing was really at stake.

Celtic used a glut of youngsters who by and large put in a good shift. Mikey Johnston was the star of the show with two stunning goals, but came close to being outshone by an even younger Karamoke Dembele who made his first team debut.

You would fancy at least one or at both players to make an appearance on Saturday. However, as I said earlier this will be good bye for some Celtic players.

Cristian Gamboa, Emilio Izaguirre, Dorus de Vries, Scott Allan, Dedryck Boyata, Jeremy Toljan and Oliver Burke will move on or return to their parent clubs. They could be followed by Filip Benkovic unless Celtic seek an extension to what has been a very successful loan spell from Leicester City.

Mikael Lustig has not declared his position as yet and it is 50/50 whether he stays or goes. Celtic may also try to offload a couple more who have failed to make a breakthrough such as Eboue Kouassi, Marvin Compper, Jack Hendry, Kundai Benyu and Youssouf Mulumbu.

And in terms of raking in some cash, there are players that have some value and will be on the radar of other clubs. The latter is of course specualtion though and will undoubtedly come down to the next manager.

Talking of which, we will find out after this cup final who is to take the permanent role. There has been no end to speculation about the next appointment.

In recent days it has gone from one favourite to the next. Many believe it is already going to be Neil Lennon, which for a large amount of the fan base is not the way forward.

Neil has been actively looking at players to bring in for the future fueling the rumour that he will be here next season. What if that wasn’t as the head coach though?

I put it to a few people yesterday about the likelihood of Neil Lennon as a Director of Football. It is clear the club value Neil’s opinion, but they must also know that in order to evolve on the park and in training that we need fresh ideas to continue the change that began under Ronny Deila.

Neil is of course Celtic through and through and has a huge interest in the club. Whether this is a role he feels he could settle in is another question.

Effectively he would be taking a back seat from the guy doing the training, picking the team and arranging the tactics. The tasks involved in a Director of Football role can vary and is much more common overseas than in the UK, but it is possible that Lennon has already been doing part of that role since he came in.

Which is why it is more likely that someone well versed in our club’s affairs, working with a continental manager could be a goer. If that is what Celtic want, to have a go-between like Lennon working with a guy such as, I dunno say Andre Villas-Boas, then I would be happy with that.

Right now though, we don’t know what the board’s thinking is. I’m just throwing it out there.

We won’t know anything until after Saturday. So let’s make some more history first and hopefully continue to make more with a solid plan for the future.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Change is afoot

For the second time this season Celtic have lost at Ibrox. Brendan Rodgers lost in December and now Neil Lennon has lost in May.

Whilst Celtic are eight-in-a-row Champions, and possible treble treble winners, this team’s performance level has been on the slide for since at least last summer if not before. Neil Lennon has been given an opportunity to manage this squad and complete a treble, but I think the greater task may be out with his own capabilities.

This is not simply about domestic domination. It is about the evolution of the club on and off the parlk.

It’s fair to say Neil hasn’t had the opportunity to recruit and isn’t wholly a team of his making. However, I also have my reservations about Neil’s style of management.

Celtic tried to change the culture of health, fitness and training five years ago. Presumably, that was why Ronny Deila was recruited before Neil had even left.

Ronny ended up becoming manager instead, in the wake of Neil’s departure. We need to maintain that culture change and I’m concerned Neil hasn’t grasped that area of coaching yet.

You can’t just be everyone’s mate, go on the bevy with the players and bleed your heart out to the fans. It’s about development, discipline, fitness, health, recruitment and tactics.

If you truly want to make inroads in Europe you have to be professional in all areas. That was what Ronny started, Brendan continued and the next full time manager must also do.

I just don’t think that should be down to Neil. We need to think bigger and to safeguard our future.

At the beginning of this title run we had Neil who had a rapport with the fans, Ronny was a good coach with a likeable personality, but the Celtic job was evidently too big for him even though he secures two titles.

Celtic need someone who can man manage like Brendan did, but help us progress to the next level as well. Especially in Europe.

I’ve been troubled that the club would take the easy path and opt for Neil. They would be taking a huge risk if they did.

When Ronny Deila lost on penalties to a Championship based Rangers side, the writing was on the wall for him and they board responded with Brendan Rodgers. Celtic have now lost both Ibrox games and I think that should be a wake up call for everyone at Celtic.

We need to up the ante once again. I don’t think that responsibility should go to Neil Lennon.

Whilst he lives and breathes the club his passion may cloud his judgement. I know he wants the job again, but is he really got anything else to offer that we haven’t seen before?

Today’s match at Ibrox was brutal. It was almost a carbon copy of the December game.

We lost a cheap and lucky goal through a self inflicted mistake. Rangers should’ve had a man sent off as well.

You win games, you lose games. I’m concerned though that these two matches have been lost in the same defeatist manner.

Neil discussed the possibility of mental or physical fatigue. I don’t know if that’s fact or fiction, even if it is plausible.

It is disconcerting though. Especially when there is a cup final still to play.

Change is afoot. The board must react.

To fund a new era will take money and to do so, we may need to sell some assets. That’ll be decided between the board and the new manager I expect.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

When Sunday comes…

The final showdown of the season with Rangers takes place tomorrow. In the buildup this week there’s been the usual flurry of irresponsible mainstream and social media bile to fuel the fire as well.

Not that you ever need it. These games come with their own self driven importance.

No trophies are being contested. This one is for personal glory.

With the league all tied up last week, Celtic can go out and enjoy this one. The emphasis on winning should be no less though.

Some have suggested on throwing in some young players. That we should play a weakened team.

In a game like this with Neil Lennon in charge there’s little chance of that ever happening. He’s played in these games, captained them and has managed his fair share also.

Celtic do have a cup final to think about in two weeks, but I think it is more likely he’ll rest players at home to Hearts next week. The final league game is at home and it will be a day of celebration at Celtic Park regardless of that result.

On Sunday, Celtic will aiming to avoid a repeat of their last visit to Ibrox. Brendan Rodgers made a huge mistake in that game.

Some even suggested he deliberately messed up to make a point. Career suicide or not, he is no longer here.

Lennon won the next encounter and it was an explosive affair. This match will be under the microscope even more than usual.

As I said before, the media have been stirring matters up. They always do.

The guard of honour farce is really tiresome. I’m sick of hearing about it.

In truth I actually don’t give a flying fuck about it. Tradition or not it means nothing to me, especially from the walking dead.

The pettiness level at Ibrox has become something of a sideshow. From reducing visitors allocation to binning applauding the Champions is nothing more than I expect from the Dave King circus.

He’s managed to get Steven Gerrard to whistle his tune. That is of course until he threw the club under the bus on honouring Celtic.

We also had the story of Tom Rogic moving south. A story out of nowhere that had no source and was discredited by his agent soon after.

I mean is there a big game this week? We’ve already had the odd poisonous story about Leigh Griffiths to deal with from areas of the SMSM.

Then yesterday we had the Timo Weah story. One which the player himself churned out.

The on loan PSG youngster has now left the club following his rejection of returning to Celtic for the Scottish Cup final. The anti-Lennon brigade within our support immediately jumped on the social media post that didn’t tell the full story.

I think we were all hopeful of Weah making an impact, but he by no means took the team by storm. I’d liked to have seen more of him, but to turn down a deal to play for your country and enjoy making history with Celtic then I have no problems with him leaving now.

Perhaps his words these past few months are not as sincere as we thought. Besides, he’s a loanee and will not be here next season so I won’t lose any sleep.

The focus remains on Ibrox and the players available to us. I’m sure that was on Lennon’s mind when he told Weah to pack up early.

He wants people committed to the cause that he is trying to preserve, for the next few matches anyway. Personally, I’m looking forward to this one.

It’s an opportunity to exorcise the last match at Ibrox. Stay disciplined on their turf unlike they managed on ours and increase our lead as Champions.

Lennon doesn’t have anything to prove at this stage. If he is the next full time manager he’ll need to prove himself then.

This unbeaten run has been about seeing out the season. It’s not an audition for the job in my opinion.

If there are any other candidates then that will be the measure, but the club will be thankful of Neil’s interim appointment. Speaking of which, head of recruitment, Lee Congerton has finally left the club.

It won’t come as any surprise because overall he hasn’t delivered the goods. With the club’s limitations on finances he has failed to unearth any bargains or gems.

For Celtic that is no good. Likewise, we cannot keep trundling along on with loan deals if player resales are a key part of our income.

So the clearout is already underway. Until Sunday then.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

All England finals and something for Scotland to aspire to.

This week has seen two of the best Champions League semi finals ever. With both remaining English clubs facing difficult second legs, they each came up with the goods and in dramatic fashion.

Last night, Arsenal and Chelsea were in a position to replicate the fortunes of Liverpool on Tuesday and Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday. With each having a very good chance of making the Europa League Final they delivered when it mattered.

Now, with all European finalists being from the same country, English teams have made history. It is of course made more possible when teams from that country are rewarded more places than most.

That is the way European football is currently set up and in the future that is only likely to favour the elite further. I may complain, but even with the four places Scotland are currently allocated, there’s generally a fairly poor showing by our clubs year after year.

This season Rangers made the group stage of the Europa League, but no further. Aberdeen exited in the second qualifying round at the hands of Burnley, whilst Hibs lost to Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s Molde in the third qualifying round.

Scottish teams need to do better. Much better.

Celtic are no exception. Whilst we have been flying the flag in the European group stages and occasionally beyond, we haven’t made much progress.

We thought Brendan Rodgers was going to be the answer to that. He wasn’t and the next manager will need to be or we will be back to square one again.

There is plenty of inspiration out there right now. Even though all the English clubs are well endowed with large revenue streams, it is their fighting spirit over the last three nights that I’ve found encouraging.

We know that Europe favours the elite, but what I’ve seen this week has been more about character and belief. Even with injuries and suspensions, these teams have taken it to the wire.

Ajax were the surprise package in the Champions League this season and many would like to have seen them in the final. As one of their players said, it was “like a fairytale” “with an unhappy ending”.

The Eredivisie may not be in the top five elite, but they’ve got more potential than many other leagues. Ajax are also producing talent, profiting greatly from it and reinvesting that money – that’s why they are where they are.

For Celtic, the question has to be what can we do within our means to get closer to that? We can’t do anything for the rest of the country.

It is up to those clubs to make in roads themselves. We’ve called for reform to improve the game, but it falls on deaf ears every time.

We need to improve competitiveness and make our league more attractive to investors. Celtic’s domination may not be viewed as being good for the game, but we’ve got there on our own, whilst the rest of Scottish football accepts what comes their way.

Celtic didn’t cheat there way into this position. We’ve had to cut our cloth accordingly and we remain in good financial shape.

Unfortunately, the business climate is not great in Scottish football. Our governing bodies hold back the game as well.

We have weak TV deals, poor stadiums, a shoddy infrastructure and leadership that lacks integrity and professionalism. This will continue to be the case until someone starts thinking outside the box and about ensuring a better future.

A lot of credit must go to Celtic for doing what they do for us. We are big fish in a very small pond but we remain at the top.

European football will always be a playground where we will need to punch above our weight. From time to time we can do that because like some of those results seen this week, Celtic are a special club.

It would be foolish to dine on that though. The club have to be doing everything in their power to deliver and not just to throw down the gauntlet to the players and hope for the best.

We may not be Ajax, but we could take a leaf out of their book. There is still much to be done at Celtic Football Club.

Last week we secured our 8th title in a row which was also our 50th overall. In two weeks time we have a chance to win an unprecedented treble treble.

Next season we will hopefully be defending that achievement. We must also make progress in Europe.

The summer months should be busy. Business must be done fast and be prepared for the early European qualifiers.

It’s a long and tiring road to the group stages of the Champions or Europa Leagues if we can make either. We are well used to that by now and we must improve upon recent attempts on the European stage whoever takes charge.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

James Forrest crowned

James Forrest is one of Celtic’s best ever home grown players. This century’s talent conveyer belt at Celtic began with the likes of Shaun Maloney, Jamie Smith, Ross Wallace and Aiden McGeady, but Forrest is one of Celtic’s longest serving and most successful products in the history of the club.

Like a few of the current first team, he has been involved in each one of the eight-in-a-row titles. His skill set has developed to the level where he has gone on to be one of the most important players in the team.

To do that he had to do more than just remain at the club. Something which looked to be in jeopardy before Brendan Rodgers arrived nearly three years ago.

The right winger had to overcome injuries, inconsistent form and prove himself to three different managers. All of which he did and now that has been maintained, making him one of the club’s key players.

Last season James was amazing. He probably should have won the award then too, but Scott Brown’s impressive eleventh season edged it.

This season, there was no question, James was the best player. Callum McGregor was on the shortlist along with Rangers’ Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos.

There’s no arguing Morelos has been a very important player for the Ibrox club but his discipline has been abysmal. Ryan Kent has also weighed in across the city, but his stats are nowhere as impressive.

James has been a steady performer for the last three seasons. He continues to impress for Celtic and it is his goals, assists and match winning moments made him number one above team mate, Callum McGregor.

Callum was awarded by the fans, but my vote was casted for James. He has been so important and put in the performances to match the stats.

Only Odsonne Edouard has scored more goals this season (21). James is joint second with Scott Sinclair (17), but his on-field displays have been far superior.

Sinclair’s stats dont lie, but he was outshone by Forrest who fully deserves his award. With a whopping 20 assists to add to his name that shows you how important he has been.

There are three more games remaining for Celtic now. You would have to imagine that James will be involved with more goals, assists and match winners as Celtic seek the treble treble.

Whoever takes the reins at Celtic next season, James will be an important player for them and the team. He can put this award next to his PFA Young Player of the Year and SFWA Young Player of the Year accolades from season 2011/2012.

Well done James.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Whilst we await on a managerial announcement, the future of this squad is already being decided…

Much of the discussion around the future of Celtic is centred around who the next permanent manager will be. That is undoubtedly the most pressing piece of business, but what does this mean for the first team squad?

Some of the players have contracts ending in the summer including loanees. Most of the players in such a position, you would expect will leave.

Who manages the team beyond 25th May will have a bearing on some of those futures though Neil Lennon has already made some announcements suggesting he is will be there in the summer. Six players are out of contract in total whilst a further four loanees are set to depart, but some business has been done with more in the pipeline it would seem.

Scott Allan agreed a pre-contract with Hibs earlier this year, Dedryck Boyata has pretty much made his feelings clear that he’ll leave, if last summer is anything to go by, Cristian Gamboa only plays when nobody else can and Dorus de Vries will most likely reach for the pipe and slippers. A question mark remains over two players that Neil Lennon originally signed for Celtic though, should he remain in the job.

Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre are the two candidates that Lennon could hang onto. He knows both players and would offer cover for another season should he need it.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that this would be my personal preference, but I could see this being done. At the very least I would expect him to keep Lustig whilst Izaguirre’s lack of game time may suggest otherwise.

As for the loanees, well that’s an entirely different situation. Oliver Burke, Timo Weah, Filip Benkovic and Jeremy Toljan could all return to their respective clubs or indeed be snapped up elsewhere.

Burke made an impact upon arrival in an attacking role. He’s scored four goals and managed three assists in sixteen games but has found himself confined to the bench as the season nears an end.

Similarly, Weah was making an impact though also finding himself moved out of the picture. In sixteen appearances he too has scored four goals, but just the one assist.

Both players have demonstrated a reasonable worth despite looking to be phased out with one eye on next season. Of course, that has been largely down to Neil Lennon.

Benkovic has been a stand out player all season, but after missing several games through injury this year he lost his place. Since his return he has made a few appearances, but Lennon appears happy to go with Kristofer Ajer and Jozo Simunovic so long as they are both fit.

There’s a big question mark over whether another loan would be sought with new management at Celtic and Leicester City. Brendan Rodgers was the one to recruit him so he may well be in his plans for next seasons Premier League campaign and I think based on that he won’t be back at Celtic.

As for Toljan, I don’t think I have seen enough evidence in his twelve appearances to warrant a longer deal unless there is more to him than what we have seen already. He looked slow and lethargic at times and I’m not entirely convinced he is any better than the list of right backs already on Celtic’s books.

The rest of the squad is of course under contract and not as likely to leave. There are a couple of players Celtic may cash in on now or cut their losses with completely as they enter the final year of their contracts.

Marvin Compper is probably the prime candidate to be moved on. He survived last summer’s cull, with still with no first team games to show for, since his forgettable 83 minutes over a year ago in the Scottish Cup.

A brief rumour suggested that Neil Lennon was going to throw him into a matchday squad, but I think that was more of a joke than a probability. Celtic should pay the guy off now or strongly advise he finds another club if he has no chance of a game.

Scott Sinclair has never been able to replicate his first season displays, however his stats suggest otherwise. Even with a clear demonstration that he lacked confidence a conviction, he is one of the clubs highest performers.

Season 16/17 – 50 Apps 25 Goals 13 Assists

Season 17/18 – 55 Apps 18 Goals 17 Assists

Season 18/19 – 50 Apps 17 Goals 6 Assists

On the face of it, that is a very good return. I’ve just not been convinced by his displays in games, but Neil Lennon confirmed that this final year was triggered and he will be here for another year.

Nir Bitton‘s agent was in town recently most likely to find out the player’s situation. Bitton was drafted in by Lennon six years ago and has been in and out of the team under the managers that followed.

He spent most of his time under Brendan Rodgers as a makeshift defender. However, Bitton’s chosen role is in the midfield so he’ll be keen to find out what next season holds for him and in which area fo the park, if at all.

Another player who appears to have moved down the pecking order is Craig Gordon. He trained at the club when Lennon was last in charge, but was eventually signed by Ronny Deila.

He has been Celtic’s number one for most of the last five seasons, but following Scott Bain’s arrival last year, the gloves do not appear to be his anymore. It is unlikely that Celtic will cash in on him unless he wishes to move on himself because we could do with a keeper of his calibre to call upon.

Jonny Hayes was brought in two years ago and didn’t quite make an impact. Just as his persistence was beginning to pay off he got injured.

In recent times under both Lennon and Rodgers, he was deployed on the left hand side. I’ve actually been impressed by his tenacity recently and can see him being a decent squad player in the final year of his current contract.

Daniel Arzani has another year left on his loan deal but whether his injury will nullify that agreement remains to be seen. Under the new management it may not be something either club wants.

It’s also worth noting that Celtic have number of players out on loan right now. No fewer than seven players are playing over two continents for the club.

Lewis Morgan is currently down at Sunderland where he’s turned in 19 appearances, scoring 2 goals. It will be interesting to see if he is seen as a player for next season or whether another loan deal will be brokered.

Back in January, Celtic signed Marian Shved from Ukrainian side Karpaty Lviv. He remained there on loan until the end of this season and given his current seasons form, looks like he could make a huge impact next season.

In 25 games he has netted 15 times with 3 assists. That figure will be most welcome in a Celtic jersey.

Meantime in Sweden, forgotten man Kundai Benyu is on loan with Helsingborg. He’s played five times since his move there in February, but he has shown no signs of breaking into the Celtic team.

He has another two years left on his contract, but does he have a future in Glasgow or will Celtic offload him? We may find out this summer.

Youssouf Mulumbu came in last summer with some thinking he would be backup for Scott Brown. After three appearances at the club, he was shipped back to Kilmarnock on loan where he has played seven matches with one goal and one assist to his name.

Is he a midfielder Celtic really need? With one year left on his contract, when his loan expires, I think Celtic may be happy to sell him off.

Calvin Miller has had minimal game time in the Celtic team having been converted from a attacking player to a left back. For a full back I thought he was fairly lightweight, but looked decent going forward and now he has been out on two loan spells.

Whilst at Dundee, he played sixteen times, scored one goal and provided three assists. He played at left back, left-wing and left midfield throughout that six month loan spell.

After that he was farmed out to Championship club Ayr United where he has been utilised in a more attacking sense. He has played up left-wing, right-wing, midfield and centre forward scoring once.

If the young guy does have a future at Celtic, this current loan does not appear to continue his conversion to a defender. With one year on his contract remaining, he will either be back out on loan or the club maybe looking to move him on too.

The last two loanees we are expecting this summer are Manny Perez and Andrew Gutman. Both players are currently over in the USA playing in the USL Championship (second tier of USA football) with North Carolina FC and Charlotte independence respectively.

With one player a left back and the other a right back, Celtic now have new cover for those berths as well as Kieran Tierney, Anthony Ralston and of course if either Lustig or Izaguirre stay. Either way, they look set to arrive in the summer and finally don the Hoops.

So there are a lot of futures to be decided this summer and so far the signs are that Lennon is already having his say. You have to imagine that the job is his even if it hasn’t been decided or announced.

He may well not know at all and the board may be keeping that decision to themselves. However, he is certainly being allowed to decide on the future of guys like Sinclair who is a highly paid player.

The signs of Lennon’s future at the club are beginning to strengthen despite some uninspiring performances by the team. This has already divided the support, but to win over all of the support they will want to see more from Lennon on match days.

He’s said often enough he isn’t playing his way, but the way the team have been for the last three seasons. Now may be the time to start changing things to convince anyone who has doubts about is managerial skills.

Before he left the club in 2014, Ronny Deila was already supposed to be coming aboard in some capacity. I’m not sure what that suggested about Neil’s coaching abilities or if that was more to do with Johan Mjallby deciding to depart.

Whether the board feel Neil requires more coaching support or if he has returned a better manager we will find out soon enough. The season is almost over.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac