O'Neill consigns Celtic's past to another country

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The Independent Football

Celtic will unveil a new kit today when they launch the defence of their Scottish Premier League title. It's more a reworking of an old theme. The retro style will evoke the mid-1970s, when Kenny Dalglish wore the green-and- white hoops, but Martin O'Neill refuses to become a prisoner of the past.

Celtic will unveil a new kit today when they launch the defence of their Scottish Premier League title. It's more a reworking of an old theme. The retro style will evoke the mid-1970s, when Kenny Dalglish wore the green-and- white hoops, but Martin O'Neill refuses to become a prisoner of the past.

The opening encounter of the season is always a touch nostalgic anyway. The champions traditionally unfurl the giant flag that commemorates their success, but for the 60,000 fans at Parkhead it will be an occasion to look back fondly anyway.

The absence of one person will mark out this as a new chapter in Celtic's history. The departure of the prolific Henrik Larsson to Barcelona during the summer will only be truly felt in the talisman's absence. Life after Larsson begins today against Motherwell.

One of the players wearing the new-style shirt will be Henri Camara, brought in to fill Larsson's shoes but not allowed to use the No 7 that the Swede made his own. The Senegal striker has already generated some acclaim after he scored the winner last Wednesday in the 2-1 defeat of Newcastle United in a friendly, but while his contribution at Wolverhampton Wanderers was best described as capricious, the east end of Glasgow is a far more demanding stage.

"It was a terrific start for Henri and it looks like the fans have found a new hero," said Stephen Pearson, the midfielder who was moved by O'Neill's persuasive tongue to join Celtic last January from Motherwell. "I can see him scoring a lot of goals in Scotland, but he's not a direct replacement for Henrik Larsson - no one ever could be. He will bring a different dimension with his pace but he will also find out that at this club, you have to hit high standards every week. He'll soon realise how big this place is."

Pearson knows what he is talking about. The 20-year-old Scotland international tried to play his way into the team gently after his move, only to find his new colleagues rebuking him for abandoning the vigour that caught O'Neill's eye in the first place.

Pearson went on to become one of the key players in Celtic's successful season, winning the League and Scottish Cup double in his first five months at the club. Yet while he scans the newspapers every day for clues about the next new face to arrive as part of O'Neill's plan to prevent Celtic standing still - Juninho could be on his way from Middlesbrough - Pearson knows the threat to his place comes just as much from closer to home.

O'Neill used Celtic's North American pre-season tour to extend the learning curve of teenagers Aiden McGeady and Ross Wallace. The 18-year-olds had been restricted to bit parts last term but played in all four tour games, against Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Roma.

"They both have great ability," enthused Pearson of the pair who are almost his contemporaries. "They are very confident. They have seen other young players do it at other clubs and want to get in on the action, too. I think they can really stake a big claim for a place this season."

McGeady is so precocious that he has already won his first full cap for the Republic of Ireland. The Glaswegian opted for his parents' country, a choice which must have frustrated Berti Vogts after the teenager scored a spectacular volley on his Celtic debut against Hearts last April which brought applause even from Larsson.

O'Neill acknowledges that it will take an exhaustive quest to fill the void left by Larsson, but he is not about to wallow in memories - even the good ones.

"In football, you get about a day to celebrate when you win and then it becomes history," said O'Neill. "What has happened has gone.

"You do not get prizes for living in the past. I feel it will be hard for the side to recreate what they did last year, winning 25 League games in a row, and my own view is that we might lose more matches this time - as could Rangers, this is not an easy league - because that sort of consistency rarely comes around."

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