James McPake has backed “class act” Conor Hazard to star in Sunday’s Scottish Cup Final – and revealed the former Dundee loanee called to thank everyone at Dens Park following his Celtic debut.
The Northern Irishman has emerged as frontrunner to keep goal for Neil Lennon’s embattled Hoops this weekend in the Hampden showdown against Hearts due to the indifferent form shown by Vasilis Barkas and another former Dee Scott Bain.
That’s after making his debut in the Europa League win over Lille and following up with another impressive performance – and clean sheet – against Kilmarnock on Sunday.
On top of that, it’s been reported he is to be offered a bumper new contract at Parkhead with his current deal ending in the summer.
Hazard enjoyed two loan spells with the Dark Blues last season, firstly as emergency cover for Jack Hamilton’s absence due to appendicitis, and then secondly in January where he conceded just once in six matches.
It was revealed last month Dundee were close to bringing in the Northern Ireland cap for a third time this summer only for Celtic to pull the plug at the last minute.
Speaking today, Dens boss McPake confirmed that and says Hazard is now showing why he was desperate to get him back.
“I’m delighted for Conor to see him playing for Celtic at the minute,” said McPake.
“Hopefully he can stay in the team, they have a massive game coming up.
“I’m in no position to tell Neil Lennon how to pick a team and wouldn’t dream of it but, on a personal note, I’d love to see Conor play in the cup final.
“I think he’s been excellent in the two games he’s played but I’m not surprised at that.
“We saw his quality here. Conor is also a really humble, nice guy. He really enjoyed his two loan spells, enjoyed working with Bobby (Geddes) and he helped us.
“He kept five clean sheets in his last five games, only conceding once in his second spell here before lockdown.
“He brought a lot to our squad so we tried and we thought we were getting him back. Unfortunately Celtic had other ideas at the very end and you can now see why.
“He’s a great guy and he picked the phone up after making his first start for Celtic. He’d played in Europe but he picked up the phone and thanked myself, Bobby and all the staff here at Dundee for everything we did for him. That’s a class act from a classy person.
“As a club we are proud to see him doing well and that we played even a tiny part in helping him. It is a tiny part because it’s Conor Hazard who has got into that position through his hard work and dedication.
“Hopefully, he can stay in and go on to make a real name for himself at that football club.”
Speaking to the Evening Telegraph during his second loan spell at Dens Park in February, Hazard said: “I do want to get back into the international squad and my aim is to impress my parent club, Celtic, while I’m here.
“Hopefully, I can push for a spot at Celtic, No 1 or No 2, for next year by doing well for Dundee.
“That will be difficult but I wouldn’t say I’m really looking too far forward, just taking things one step at a time.”
Meanwhile, this week Celtic boss Lennon said the 22-year-old had “earned the right” to make his first-team debut after waiting six years for his chance.
As well as Dundee, Hazard had loan spells with Falkirk and Partick Thistle.
Lennon said: “I though he did really well [on debut against Lille]. He has been training very well over the last couple of months and I had spoken to him about playing in this match and I thought he jumped at the chance.
“He was very accomplished and that he handled the occasion very well.
“We have seen a real improvement in him over the last couple of months in terms of his maturity. His performances have been absolutely excellent.
“He has earned the right and we were delighted with him.”