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Football: McGeady: Celtic just can't afford to lose Hart.

Byline: By Hugh Keevins

AIDEN McGEADY last night pleaded with Celtic not to lose prolific scorer John Hartson for the want of money.

The teenager issued his warning to the club's plc board on the eve of the Champions League tie with AC Milan that will determine whether Celtic stay in Europe beyond Christmas or drop out altogether after failing to win a UEFA Cup place.

Hartson's goals in each half on Saturday beat Hibs and prevented a morale-damaging result before tomorrow night's clash with the Italians.

But McGeady voiced the fans' fear that the SPL's top scorer will slip through Celtic's fingers under freedom of contract when the transfer window opens next month.

McGeady said:'I hope John gets sorted out at our club. It would bea real shame to see him go. John has proved to be an invaluable player for us this season and he would be very hard to replace.

'Put it this way, how much would it cost to replace someone who scores as many goals as he does?

'I thought John was immense against Hibs.

'He has been Celtic's top player this season by a long way because of the goals he has been banging in.

'Whenever we've been down and in need of a goal, John's been there for us.

'He's stepped in to fill the void left by Henrik Larsson when he signed for Barcelona.'

Hartson's goalscoring exploits have extended to getting the strike that won a draw against Barcelona in the Nou Camp and gave Celtic a European lifeline.

Martin O'Neill's side take a one point lead over Shakhtar Donetsk into tomorrow's game knowing a home win would guarantee a UEFA Cup spot as they parachute out of the Champions League.

But there is still no end in sight to the long, drawn-out problem of when, or if the player will agree to extend the contract that expires at the end of the season.

Hartson could sign a pre-contract agreement with another club next month under the Bosman ruling, but O'Neill refuses to be hurried into negotiations with the player's agent.

The Celtic manager said: 'It seems to have become an hourly debate on this subject, not even a daily one.But with a bit of luck we can do something.

'John's been having a wonderful time this season. The board have agreed his contract should be extended and talks have been in the offing. Six months ago John couldn't have played so many high-tempo games in quick succession because of the problems he had with his back.

'But now he is as fit as he has ever been while with Celtic.'

None of which appears to have forced Celtic's hand.

The club still want Hartson to accept a wage cut in exchange for lengthening his stay in Scotland, ignoring the logic of McGeady's argument that a replacement for the Welshman could cost Celtic millions of pounds.

O'Neill's other concern is whether Stilian Petrov will have recovered from an ankle injury in time to face AC Milan.

Whatever happens, there is little likelihood of Juninho playing for the first time since October 30, when he was substituted against Motherwell.

O'Neill said: 'I would be disappointed if Juninho didn't feel frustrated but McGeady is doing wonderfully well in that role - and he's going to be a player.'

The Brazilian is reputedly the highest-paid player at Celtic Park, earning a suggestedpounds 55,000a week and minimising any chance of a wage rise for Hartson or any of the other players who are due to go out of contract, like Jackie McNamara, Bobo Balde and Neil Lennon.

CAPTION(S):

VALUABLE: John Hartson; BHOY FOR US: Celtic kid Aiden McGeady, left, reckons John Hartson is too valuable for the club to lose
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Dec 6, 2004
Words:627
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