Now O'Neill can set sail for Stein territory

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill was conspicuous by his absence last week. Everyone else at Celtic Park seemed to be on a full-scale mission for success, but the manager's brief was more secretive.

The Northern Irishman was not taking advantage of his team's lead in the Scottish Premier League and cramming in an Easter Holiday, merely running his eye over a few potential signings on the Continent. Celtic's own stars of the future, though, were making sure that even if they were out of sight they would not be out of mind. Just as the first team were putting the finishing touches to a second successive SPL title, the club's Under-21 side also won their championship, while the under-18 team are pursuing the treble in their duel with, who else, Rangers.

O'Neill knows next season's agenda is more likely to require a squad bolstered by proven international recruits – principally a playmaker to replace Lubomir Moravcik, who is retiring – rather than emerging youngsters, yet some fruit of that system will be on show tomorrow night at his alma mater, Filbert Street. O'Neill's departure for Parkhead in June 2000 may have prompted Leicester City's downward spiral, but at least the 7,000 Celtic fans who have bought tickets for the friendly will provide some financial compensation for a club whose imminent departure from the FA Premiership contrasts vividly with the star which has risen over the east end of Glasgow.

The vital statistics of O'Neill's second championship side – just one League defeat and 117 goals scored in all competitions – have had former Celtic players queuing up this week to offer testimony to his achievement.

"O'Neill has weeded out those not in tune with his methods," explained Jim Craig, the full-back in Celtic's 1967 European Cup-winning side. "He has fostered good team spirit, developed a system that makes his team difficult to beat and bought players to fit into the pattern. "He has done what Jock Stein did, who, two years after taking over an under-achieving, trophyless team, won the European Cup. Nobody will know better than O'Neill that Celtic need more quality in several areas to reach the latter stages of the Champions' League, and hopefully he will bring in new faces. It might not be a bad time to buy – clubs all over Europe are feeling the pinch."

One of those needy clubs are Milan, whom the newly crowned Scottish champions could be playing next month in New York in a charity game to be beamed around the world, to underline that Celtic's return to the élite this season – involving a 4-3 Champions' League defeat of Juventus and a dramatic penalty shoot-out with Valencia in the Uefa Cup – expanded the club's horizons well beyond Scottish football.

"I've been impressed by how Celtic have progressed since I left," admitted Pierre van Hooijdonk, now with Feyenoord, on a visit to Glasgow last week. "Everyone can see what a great job O'Neill is doing. I think that if Celtic played Feyenoord right now, they could beat us." That from a man whose side stand on the brink of the Uefa Cup final. Feyenoord's progress is probably viewed enviously by Leeds United, whose exit at the fourth-round stage has heightened the need to sell Mark Viduka this summer to Italy.

That has led to speculation that David O'Leary will turn once more to Parkhead, with Chris Sutton the object of a reported £8 million bid. Yet no one has embodied O'Neill's sorcery more than Sutton, and the man who terrorised Juventus last October may be unwilling to break the bond. "Apart from Henrik [Larsson], no one has a divine right to play in this team. We all work for each other, and when we don't play, we support those who do," he said.

That philosophy is echoed by the greatest talent ever to wear a Celtic shirt, Jimmy Johnstone, the magical winger of the 1967 triumph who was third in that season's European Footballer of the Year poll. "Footballers are temperamental but there is a great camaraderie in the dressing room just now," said Johnstone. "The fact that no one has been shouting to the papers about not playing tells its own story. Now Celtic must focus on being a force in Europe again."

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