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Celtic should retire number five shirt in tribute to Billy McNeill, says Lennon

Emotional: Neil Lennon is anticipating special day tomorrow as Billy McNeill is remembered
Emotional: Neil Lennon is anticipating special day tomorrow as Billy McNeill is remembered

By Ronnie Esplin

Neil Lennon believes Celtic should retire the club's number five jersey as a tribute to Billy McNeill.

The former Northern Ireland midfielder said the Scottish champions were a club "in mourning" after the death this week of the centre-back, who captained the famous 'Lisbon Lions' side that won the European Cup in 1967 and who also went on to manage the Hoops.

McNeill had suffered from dementia and interim boss Lennon admitted he shed tears when he heard the news on Tuesday morning.

He backed the idea that the number which was so closely associated with McNeill, albeit he mostly wore it on his shorts rather than on his back when he played in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, should be withdrawn from the squad.

He said: "Why not? There will only ever be one Billy McNeill for me. So I think that is not a bad idea at all and hang it up there so everyone can see it for years on end.

"I can't put into words how big a loss he is to our club.

"I have been on this earth 47 years and one of the first people you think about when it comes to Celtic is Billy McNeill.

"On behalf of the players and staff, our thoughts go out to Liz (his wife) and the family.

"Liz was just a rock for Billy over his whole life and the family gave him tremendous comfort, love and care through his debilitating illness.

"I had a cry myself. He was a leader of a great team and leader of great men."

Celtic fans will pay tribute to McNeill tomorrow when Kilmarnock visit Parkhead in the Ladbrokes Premiership.

The Hoops are nine points ahead of second-placed Rangers with four fixtures remaining and if they beat Killie they will clinch their eighth successive title if the Ibrox men slip up against Aberdeen on Sunday.

Lennon said: "I think the fans will give Billy a huge tribute and the players need to feed off it, thrive on it, enjoy and celebrate Billy's life and career.

"They are a good side and have had a good couple of seasons under Steve (Clarke). I expect a tough game."

Lennon revealed that striker Leigh Griffiths, out since December as he deals with personal problems, is having his fitness assessed with the hope of a return before the end of the season, while left-back Kieran Tierney is seeing a specialist about his pelvis problem.

The manager said: "We will have a fair idea how far away Leigh is after (yesterday's) results. He has a bit of work to do but yes, hopefully he'll be back, which should be a bonus because we have missed his goals, there is no question of that.

"He needs to get some calmness and stability in his life and the football can take care of itself.

"If you have carnage going on off the field it is going to catch up with you eventually. He knows that and is working very hard behind the scenes which is great."

Lennon also told Parkhead fans they could get the chance to see 16-year-old wonder kid Karamoko Dembele in action before the campaign ends.

He said: "If all things go well you may see him around before the end of the season.

"I am a big fan of his. I like his style.

"I would like to get him integrated into the first team squad sooner rather than later but he still has a bit of work to do."

Meanwhile, former Rangers striker Ally McCoist claims that Celtic have no choice but to invest heavily in new signings this summer if they are to make progress on the European stage.

"They need to reinvest. It's a massive, massive summer. Celtic have got to strengthen," insisted the Ibrox and Scotland legend.

"They are stuck between a rock and a hard place (because) they've got to reinvest if they're to progress in Europe but they're going to win the league anyway," he added.

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