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John Robertson <-auth Glenn Gibbons auth-> Mike McCurry
[A McGeady 9] ;[S Petrov 68]
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O'Neill in fight to hold on to Petrov

Celtic manager not impressed by Bulgaria’s Christmas friendly as Hearts test looms


THE Celtic manager, Martin O’Neill, is prepared to go to war with the Bulgarian Football Association and, if not God, he certainly seems at least to have right on his side.

The issue that prompted O’Neill’s hostility yesterday was the demand by Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgaria manager, for the release of Stilian Petrov for a meaningless representative match next week. Stoichkov’s side are to play Valenciana, a region of Spain, in a friendly, and the coach insisted on having his strongest squad available.

But a FIFA spokesman confirmed that, since the match - due next Tuesday - does not fall on one of its allocated international dates, there is no obligation on any club to send their players.

"The rule is quite clear," said the spokesman. "If it does not fall on an official date, the association involved has no claim on the player. This is why the allocated date system was implemented in the first place."

O’Neill was clearly unhappy about losing one of his most-worked players - Petrov has played throughout the year, including international duty at Euro 2004 in Portugal - during a festive programme that is demanding enough.

"I can’t say I’m overly pleased at the Bulgaria match coming immediately after Christmas," was the Irishman’s understatement.

"It’s especially frustrating, as the Spanish League itself is just closing down for its winter break. And especially since it’s Stan Petrov, who’s played so many matches already for his country.

"I’ve said this before. We pay the player’s wages and if they have a match at an awkward time, any settlement of the issue should come down in our favour.

"I’ll certainly be speaking to the Bulgarian FA about this."

O’Neill’s intention to go over the intransigent Stoichkov’s head seems no longer to be necessary. In the light of FIFA’s pronouncement, a polite fax informing them of Petrov’s unavailability should suffice.

Celtic’s slender lead in the Premierleague could be seriously threatened as early as Sunday, when they have to travel to Tynecastle to face Hearts. Nobody is more aware of the possibility of sustaining damage than the Parkhead manager himself.

In the way that Jock Stein once recognised St Mirren under the emergent Alex Ferguson as a reason to be wary, O’Neill is clearly respectful of John Robertson as a manager of endless potential.

His admiration of the former Scotland striker was expressed unambiguously yesterday, when he was asked about the changes in Hearts since Robertson succeeded Craig Levein a few weeks ago.

"It would be too early to make a full-scale comment on the changes John has made," said O’Neill, "but I know him well, I’ve watched his career and I think he’s destined to do great things.

"I didn’t know him as a player, I met him first as a coach at Livingston, then he did so well at Inverness and now he’s at Hearts.

"I think he has a great chance as a manager and I have a lot of time for him. Tynecastle is a hard place to go to, because there is always a great deal of intensity about the place.

"And it stays with the game for a long time, it doesn’t just die after a while. It goes on until the end."

O’Neill, of course, has good cause to be cautious about facing Robertson, the latter’s team having eliminated Celtic from the Tennent’s Scottish Cup 1-0 at Caledonian Stadium in 2003.

There is little doubt that he regards Sunday’s assignment as the most awkward the champions will face over the holiday period.

"Hearts are usually up in third place by now," said O’Neill, "but their run in the UEFA Cup has probably been an influence. They had an excellent time, but, when they got to the group stage, they probably had to prepare differently for domestic matches and there was a strong possibility they would drop points. With that now gone, you’ll see them start to pick up."

The injured defender, Joos Valgaeren, having scans on an injured knee, will not be available to Celtic, but midfielder Alan Thompson is expected to be recovered from the knock he took against Dundee United last weekend, when he was replaced by Juninho after 39 minutes.


CELTIC misfit Juninho may be set for a quick exit from Parkhead after Mexican club Red Sharks Veracruz revealed they are in talks to sign him, writes Mark Walker.

The 32-year-old Brazilian World Cup winner has been a massive disappointment since signing on a £40,000-per-week two-year deal from Middlesbrough in August, and the Mexican club’s vice-president Professor Gustavo Parente Sanchez has claimed Juninho has given his word he will sign for them - if no club in Spain are interested.

Meanwhile, Neil Lennon is hopeful of signing a new contract early next year and seeing out his playing days with Celtic. The 34-year-old midfielder’s current deal runs out in May.

"Ideally, it would be great to stay. I’m just looking for a bit of security really going into my last year or two of my career," said Lennon.

Taken from the Scotsman

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