Neil Lennon may decline to be drawn on whether Gary Hooper is his best signing so far, but the Celtic manager has no doubt he has unearthed a gem, after the striker was on the scoresheet twice as the Hoops romped to an emphatic 3-0 win over Rangers on Sunday, before turning provider for Kris Commons to seal the victory at Parkhead to move Celtic eight points clear in the SPL.
A CV including stints at Southend and Scunthorpe, with loans spells at Leyton Orient and Hereford United, may not have set the pulse racing. But there is little doubt the Englishman has been a revelation since his arrival at Celtic last summer, with his Old Firm double taking his tally for the season so far to 15 goals.
Asked whether Hooper was, pound for pound, his best purchase, Lennon said yesterday: "I don't know. I'll let you know at the end of the season. He's excellent. He's only 23, let's give the kid a bit of time to see how his career progresses but I think we can all see what a good all-round player he is. He has a great first touch. His first touch took him away from David Weir, he left him in his wake and it was a wonderful finish. Once he gets in there, you always fancy him to score. He made up some ground for the second goal and it was a beautiful goal."
There is also little doubt that the January capture of Commons – also a target for Rangers – was a worthwhile acquisition for Lennon, who said: "We spent £300,000 on Kris Commons and I think that was a decent bit of business. He has performed very well and he is a better player now than he was when I was at Nottingham Forest with him. He's always had an eye for goal but he can go past people and provide a good delivery, so we are delighted with his contribution.
"There are other important players as well – Hooper, Beram Kayal, and I thought Georgios Samaras was world class in the game."
The Rangers manager, Walter Smith, has made no secret of the lack of funds at the Ibrox club and the difficulties in being forced to operate with such a small squad. But Lennon believes the money at his disposal in his first full season in charge at Celtic has been used shrewdly.
"We have been imaginative and productive with the money that was spent," Lennon said. "I did sell Aiden McGeady, Artur Boruc, Marc-Antoine Fortuné and Stephen McManus, and you always worry that might come back and bite you. It's not as though we've been spending willy-nilly and not recouping any money. We actually had a surplus of money by August."
Smith refused to use Rangers' European schedule as an excuse for capitulating in Sunday's Old Firm derby, which was sandwiched between last Thursday's Europa League tie against Sporting Lisbon, which ended in a 1-1 draw at Ibrox, and the return leg in Portugal this Thursday.
But, as far as Smith was concerned, his side simply were not good enough on the day. "We played in Champions League games earlier in the season and had to come back and play," he said. "It's no excuse overall."
However, the strain of fighting on four fronts this season appears to be taking its toll. Asked whether he is having to ask too much of his small group of players, Smith said: "Only time will tell. If this game was an indication, then we have a lot to do. It's my responsibility to try and get them up to a level that would show that we are better than we were today.
"We need a bit of luck but we have to handle it. Up until the turn of the year, I felt we were handling it and we were doing reasonably well, considering we had Champions League games. Since then we haven't really and that culminated in this performance, which was as poor as we have had here for a while."Reuse content