Lennon looks for positives
THE crowd at Celtic Park for tonight's Europa League meeting with Utrecht was yesterday predicted by a club source to be "healthy".
If Celtic emerge in the same condition from two hazardous encounters with the Eredivisie side the achievement will be a significant marker for Neil Lennon's tenure as manager.
Two seasons of falling stock on the field of play have left their mark on the stands, where empty seats have been a novel and unwelcome phenomenon this year, and on the balance sheet, with the club's accounts showing a fall in turnover and a rise in debt earlier this week.
Recession has played its part, too, but one trend which Lennon and his players have in their power to reverse is the decline in frequency of European nights in the east end of Glasgow.
There were five home games in Europe two years ago and three last year. This is Celtic's second European tie in front of their own fans this season and if they proceed to the group stage they have a prime opportunity to rebuild the feelgood factor.
In that respect, it would have been a mighty fillip had Craig Bellamy agreed to return to the club where he enjoyed a loan spell under Martin O'Neill.
Lennon was at all times realistic about his chances of persuading the Welsh international to forswear proximity to family in his own country, but the prospect remained tantalising until the last minute.
"Listen, we were right there at the death," said Lennon. "I felt like I was on the phone to him every 20 minutes over the last week or so but Cardiff were always the favourites and that was where he wanted to go.
"He has a young family and has been away for a while. I think he is a better player than when he was here in 2005, so it would have been quite a signing. If you don't try, you don't get.
"We have come close with three or four big names now and there's still time to go. I think we get a raw deal in how we are portrayed down the road in England. People talk quite negatively about the Scottish game.
"We have just got to stay on the other side and keep it positive, try to keep attracting that quality of player to the SPL."
Lennon was angered by the flippant response of the Coventry manager, Aidy Boothroyd, to an offer for the Irish goalkeeper Kieren Westwood.
Boothroyd said of the bid: "It's £3.50 and a bag of haggis, which is nowhere near enough for a player of that quality."
Asked if he was annoyed, Lennon retorted: "Yeah. It was disrespectful really, but I'll keep my counsel on that one for another day. We will put a bid in -- a couple of bottles of Irn Bru should do it."
The topic did, however, expand into a discussion of the fact that potential signings targeted in Europe carry less baggage than many in England, when it comes to attitudes towards the Scottish game. "We have a better brand in Europe," said Lennon.
"I think the reputation of both the Old Firm clubs is portrayed better in Europe than it would be down the road in England. I just worry that people get a flea in their ear down there and try to stop players coming here."
Paddy McCourt has recovered from the neck injury he suffered in the weekend victory at Inverness, where he scored the only goal of the game. (© Daily Telegraph, London)