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Neil Lennon: Covid crisis prevented Celtic from cashing in on wantaway stars

Celtic v Rangers – Scottish Premiership – Celtic Park
(Image credit: Jane Barlow)

Neil Lennon claims the Covid crisis prevented Celtic from cashing in on the stars that helped them win nine successive Premiership titles last season.

The first alarm bells signalling things were not all right in Celtic’s bid for an historic 10th consecutive title came last August when then boss Lennon made headlines by claiming a number of his top names wanted to leave in the wake of the club’s shock Champions League exit to Ferencvaros.

But now he has revealed the club received just one low-ball offer during that period, with the bid never high enough to persuade chief executive Peter Lawwell or majority shareholder Dermot Desmond to sell the unnamed player.

Instead, the Northern Irishman says the financial crisis brought on by Covid-19 forced the club to decide to cling on to key men like Kristoffer Ajer and Odsonne Edouard, even though they now risk losing them for nothing next summer.

It proved to be a disastrous decision, with Lennon – who resigned in February as Celtic’s grip on their position of dominance finally slipped – saying the fact there were wantaway players in the squad created “disaffection and tension” in his camp.

Looking back on the wreckage of last season, Lennon told BBC Radio Scotland: “With this huge talk about winning 10-in-a-row and working through the pandemic – which was really difficult for the players, particularly the ones who had come from outside of Scotland – it just didn’t happen for us this year.

“We’d gone from before lockdown being rampant  but when the boys came back after the three-month break a lot had changed in their mindset.

“Some of them wanted to move on, which I got because we were on the verge of winning a fourth treble.

“Some of them had reached the top of the mountain and were starting to think about trying a career somewhere else, which is understandable.

“But it creates a bit of disaffection and tension in the group at times. There was some of that, there’s no question of that.

“It’s one thing these players wanting to go – and at the time before the lockdown they were big money – but because of what happened, not just in Britain but all over Europe, finances diminished very, very quickly with a lot of clubs.

“We had one bid for one player and it wasn’t anywhere near enough.

“We decided that: one, we can’t sell him for that kind of money, and: two, that we’d keep them on and try to manage them through the season.

“But it was very, very difficult for them and for us as well at the time.”

Lennon also doubled down on his defence of the club’s controversial Dubai training camp – insisting it was no different to the sunshine break in Spain and Portugal enjoyed by Scotland boss Steve Clarke and his squad ahead of the Euros.

The former Hoops boss launched a scathing attack on his critics back in January after being pictured sharing a beer with skipper Scott Brown – and his anger has not subdued any since.

“I felt me, Peter, the players and the club were hung out to dry,” said Lennon, who was forced to self-isolate along with 15 players and staff after defender Christopher Jullien tested positive on his return to Glasgow.

“We went with the best of intentions to Dubai, whether people think at the time it was the best decision to do that or not.

“Scotland have just been on a summer training break. They’ve had a Covid outbreak.

“You may say the circumstances are different but Steve has taken them out for a training camp.

“The way it was perceived is that someone took a photograph of us lounging around a pool having flown in at four o’clock in the morning.

“We’d given the players a day off as we’d played at Ibrox the day before.

“And this perception was we were out there having a great time, drinking all day and sitting by a pool having cocktails. Andy Walker called it a jolly – that made my blood boil because they were coming at us for all the wrong reasons.

“We had government approval to go, so at any time the government could have said, ‘Look we don’t think this is a good idea. Stay here.’

“None of that was forthcoming so we took the opportunity to go out and work in an environment for a week that would have benefited us for the second half of the season, as it had done in the previous three of four seasons.

“But the fall out from it was ridiculous.

“We seemed to be set a different set of rules to everyone else and it made my blood boil.”