YOU may call Neil Lennon old-fashioned, but there is one thing that he values in a goalkeeper above all else. Here’s a hint; it isn’t their range of passing.
When previous Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers arrived at the club, he initially took Craig Gordon out of the line-up in favour of Dorus De Vries until the Scotland keeper had brushed up on his footwork. And the decision to bring Scott Bain to the club was at least partly due to his ability with the ball at his feet.
Gordon will play for Celtic tonight in Estonia as Lennon’s side travel to face Nomme Kalju with a five-goal advantage, and while Bain may be seen as the de facto number one at present, the Celtic manager maintains that permutation is far from set in stone. It seems the call between who will be the regular number one for Celtic from now on will be based on the rather quaint notion of who is better at preventing the ball from going into the goal, going against the ethos of the man previously in the Celtic dugout.
“It’s far less a factor for me,” said Lennon. “I like my goalkeepers to keep the ball out of the net. I’ve got two who are very, very good at that.
“Craig has really impressed me in training and in the bounce games that we’ve played, and Scott has been brilliant for me. Since I came in, he’s been absolutely outstanding.
“They are quality players, we’re talking about Craig Gordon here, Scotland’s number one for a long, long time. So, it’s not as if we are taking the tie lightly, we’re just giving some good players who haven’t had the opportunity to play a chance to play.”
Gordon may well be slightly more optimistic that his chances to play will come along more regularly than he may have reasonably expected at the start of the summer, going by his manager’s comments.
“I wouldn’t say [Gordon is second-choice], it’s too early for me to make that assessment,” he said.
“He didn’t play when I came in due to a knee problem, but he’s over that now and he’s training well, so we’ll see how we go with the two of them.
“It’s something that we’ll gauge as we go along. I’m not going to treat Scott Bain badly. If he’s performing well, as he has done, then it’s not a difficult thing to keep the momentum going that way.
“Probably [I’ll judge it on] gut instinct as we go along, and [goalkeeping coach]Stevie Woods will be important in that as well.
“I don’t want to turn this into a p***ing match between the two of them. I don’t want to put any extra pressure on either one of them.
“I’ve got the luxury of having two very good goalkeepers at the minute, and if called upon, I’m sure either of them will come in and do a terrific job for me.”
Considering the often-fraught path that Celtic have tread down the years in the Champions League qualification process, the match in Tallinn tonight is as close to a relaxing evening that Lennon is likely to get between now and the moment their passage to the group stages comes to an end.
The game, to be played in front of an expected crowd of just 4000 at the Estonian National Stadium, will have little bearing on whether that journey will have a successful conclusion, the Scots so far out of sight as they are.
Notwithstanding the cliché about no game being unimportant to Celtic though, there is no doubt that for some members of the squad, it could certainly be a significant evening.
Christopher Jullien will be making his competitive debut, and Lennon is looking forward to seeing what his £7m signing can bring to the table as he slowly gets back to fighting weight.
“He’s looking better,” Lennon said. “Sharper.
“Obviously that all comes with getting used to the tempo of the training and getting used to the players but we’re pleased with the progress he’s making now. He’s itching to play, so he will play.”
The Celtic fans too will be itching to see what Jullien is all about, having only had one fleeting glimpse of the big defender in the friendly against Stade Rennais, but Lennon has cautioned against making any snap judgments on the player.
“You get that all the time with new signings and he has come for a lot of money from our point of view,” he said. “But we’re not going to judge him on one game. We judged the signing on what we saw of him playing for Toulouse at a very high level for the last number of years, and playing very consistently. His attitude has been spot on, he’s hungry and he wants to show what he can do now.
“We think [he’s suited to Scottish football]. He’s a physical, dominant centre half, he’s proficient with both feet and he dominates the ball in both boxes which at times is what you need, certainly in the British game.
“He will be a threat, there’s no question of that, he has goals in him from set plays and we like him as a defender as well. We are all looking forward to seeing him and he’s looking forward to it.
“Allied to that him and Jozo (Simunovic) are suspended for Saturday so they need to get this game, it’s important that both of them play because they won’t be able to play again until next week.”