O'Neill's big three stay central to success

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill's animated behaviour in the dugout surely has its roots in his restless playing days. Yet the uncertainty instilled by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest has no place in the Celtic manager's own football philosophy.

Martin O'Neill's animated behaviour in the dugout surely has its roots in his restless playing days. Yet the uncertainty instilled by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest has no place in the Celtic manager's own football philosophy.

Rather than copy the ruthlessness of his mentor, O'Neill has literally been bending over backwards to keep his key contributors happy. He has kept faith with virtually the same midfield core during his five years at Parkhead. Stilian Petrov, Neil Lennon and Alan Thompson are as much the heartbeat of Celtic now as they were during O'Neill's first championship success in 2001. All three will feature today in a home game against Aberdeen that can move manager and team closer to a fourth title in five campaigns.

Even though O'Neill now eschews 3-5-2 for 4-4-2, the trio in the middle retain his faith. "When I asked Cloughie why I wasn't playing in centre midfield, he said, 'It's because you are crap'," O'Neill recalled wryly on Friday. It is safe to say Petrov, Lennon and Thompson will not be telling a similar tale in 20 years' time.

O'Neill inherited Petrov from the disastrous Kenny Dalglish era and swiftly recruited Lennon and Thompson from Leicester and Aston Villa for £8.2m. "Alan likes to play infield, rather than wide left," explained O'Neill. "I know that feeling, because I wanted to do it myself. However, he has been effective for us for such a long time in his wide role. The only reason I moved him inside was to accommodate the emergence of Aiden McGeady. However, I prefer my most creative players to be on the ball as much as possible, and I feel that actually happens more on the touchline."

The theory was borne out against Rangers a fortnight ago as Petrov began the match on the right flank, but then covered every square yard of turf in a display of ceaseless motion. "Stilian seems to get more goals from that position than from a normal central spot," reflected O'Neill. "He is our most attack-minded player. I want him getting into the box, but he can do that because he knows Neil Lennon is doing a holding job."

Lennon, of course, could be back in the Premiership next season if he succumbs to Sam Allardyce's persuasion and joins Bolton. The 34-year-old has a new one-year contract on offer at Celtic. "Age catches up with everyone, but I believe he can do his job here for another season," O'Neill said.

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