CONOR HAZARD signed a two-year extension last week and the Northern Ireland international keeper is about to confront the crunch at Celtic.
The 23-year-old netminder, the Hoops’ Hampden hero with two saves in the penalty-kick shoot-out against Hearts, was axed last week – from the substitutes’ bench.
Hazard has made only two appearances this year when Scott Bain and Vasilis Barkas were among 13 players ordered to self-isolate after Christopher Jullien tested positive for coronavirus upon the squad’s return from the ill-fated Dubai trip.
He played in the 1-1 draw with Hibs and the goalless stalemate against Livinsgton as the champions’ nine-year stranglehold on the Premiership was loosened during a catastrophic campaign.
Barkas took over for the 2-2 draw in West Lothian and was axed to make way for Bain who has been in charge for the past 10 outings.
Hazard was back-up for the loss against Ross County in Dingwall and the 1-0 victory over Aberdeen at Parkhead, but dropped out of John Kennedy’s squad when the Greek took the stand-by spot in the dreary goalless stalemate against Dundee United at Tannadice that marked the end of an era.
HAMPDEN HEROES 2020…Conor Hazard and his team-mates celebrate the spot-kick triumph over Hearts.
A calamitous season is limping to a completion with only the Scottish Cup offering the opportunity of silverware for the holders who have lifted the trophy for a record break four consecutive seasons.
Hazard will be hoping to again play a part – and former Celtic shotstopper Allen McKnight hopes his countryman will get his chance.
The one-time Hoops hero believes the rookie goalie is approaching a crossroads in his Parkhead career which is similar to one he faced.
After deputising for the injured Pat Bonner during the club’s 1988 Centenary Double season and earning a new deal, McKnight was lined up for a return to the reserves.
The Nortthern Irland international eventually moved to West Ham and admitted: “Training doesn’t satisfy. Contracts don’t satisfy you. It matches that satisfies you.
“He’s at a crossroads now. If you take it like for like with me, I was a year older. I was 24 and Conor is 23 now.
“Myself and Packie were there and I was told I was going to play in the first team. I got a run of games during one season, but I was bang to rights at the start of the next season.
“Pat got back and I was in the reserves, so West Ham came calling and I thought I could go and play in England and off I went.
“I didn’t work out as a I hoped, so moving isn’t necessarily the right thing to do, but you need to get a break at some stage.
“Look at Adrian. He was seven years on the bench at a Spanish club, but got games at the end of one season and got a move to West Ham. Had a run there and onto Liverpool where he won a Champions League medal.
HAMPDEN HEROES 1988…keeper Allen McKnight holds aloft Scottish Cup-waving Joe Miller after the victory over Dundee United.
“It’s right place at the right time, but goalkeeper is hard. You can spend two or three years out and that’s my worry. Conor could sit for another season and we talk about this again this time next year.
“I’d imagine Conor will be hoping to get half a dozen games before the end of the season.
“He turned 23 last week and it’s time to lockdown a goalkeepers position. It’s early in a goalkeeper’s career at that age, but once you have tasted it, you want to keep it going.”
McKnight feels it’s the perfect time for Hazard to be reintroduced to maintain his development.
The former last line of defence, speaking to the Daily Record, added: “If Celtic were going out into the market place to try and secure themselves a back-up or a No.2, they’d be into an awful lot more money than they’d have to pay Conor.
“So, I’m just wondering if there’s a little bit of protection from Celtic in making sure they don’t lose him.
WE’LL SUPPORT YOU EVERMORE…Conor Hazard offers consolation to shattered ex-team mate Craig Gordon after the penalty-kick shoot-out.
“When I was No.2 to Packie, I was quite cheap. When I was speaking to West Ham, my terms changed six and seven fold. My number lifted once Celtic knew there was an outside interest.
“Speaking from personal experience, it was difficult to survive feeling you were good enough to play and you weren’t playing.
“You’d gone in, you’d done it and felt as though you’d done enough.
“I played behind a great Celtic defence. There’s a bit more pressure on a keeper now playing behind the defence now as teams feel Celtic are vulnerable.
“This is an ideal time to use Conor because nothing is going to change in terms of their league position until the end of the season.
“If they are not going to throw him in now, you have to question if they see him as the future.
“I look at it and think that if they are preparing him for the future, they should be looking at him over the remaining weeks and games of the season.”