The past week has seen some heated discussion around two of our home-grown players – Stephen Welsh and Mikey Johnston – and what the next best step should be for them in their Celtic careers.
Indeed many have questioned whether they have a Celtic future, despite being just 22 and 23 years of age respectively.
Rumoured loan bids have come in for Welsh from Toulouse (of Ligue Un in France) and for Johnston from Standard Liege (of the Jupiler Pro League in Belgium).
When it comes to these two and other Celtic Academy graduates it feels like many supporters hold the opinion that if a Celtic player hasn’t fully cemented their place in the first time by the age of 23, then they never will.
I completely disagree with this.
In my opinion Stephen Welsh has come back this season looking like an improved player.
However, there is still further improvement required for him to be of the required level to command a starting spot in Ange’s first XI.
I’ve some concerns around his pace but he can make up with that by improvements elsewhere. His positioning and reading of the game for example.
One thing I’m confident about is that whatever Stephen’s top level will be, he will get there due to his professionalism and attitude. These are attributes of his which have never been in question.
Now, he’s a massive Celtic fan and I’m sure he will want to stick around to help the team in any way he can, but I do wonder if he needs the decision to be taken out of his hands and to do what may be best for his career and his development.
That’s not to say that he can’t be a Celtic player, but some time out on loan may accelerate his development at this key stage in his career and allow him the minutes required to make the necessary improvements.
It will be interesting to see what his next move is.
My gut feeling is that he will stay till the winter transfer window and a decision may be made then.
Mikey Johnston is a very different situation, but again I believe a loan move would do him the world of good.
This would allow the young winger vital minutes on the park, to find the consistency and confidence he so badly needs.
In addition it will allow him to put his body to the test and to show he can handle the rigours of professional football.
I’ve seen so much written about Mikey Johnston that I simply disagree with.
The covid season was difficult for anyone coming back from injury. Players were unable to get back up to speed as easily as any other year. There were less support staff available, less training matches, isolation related issues.
It simply was the worst season for anyone – never mind for a Celtic player during a tumultuous “Ten In A Row Season” – to be coming back into the fold.
Being injured by a terrible tackle in the first pre-season match under new manager Ange Postecoglou just compounded his bad luck.
Once he did return, he found one of the best young wingers in Europe in my opinion (Jota) had been signed and was now playing ahead of him.
Like many in our squad he then broke down adapting to new more intensive training.
He’s genuinely had the worst luck.
How Does Mikey Compare To Similarly Aged Wingers?
I read the following article on the Scouted Football website the other day which highlights 8 of the best young wingers in the game.
Looking at the 6 players in the list who are either 22 or 23, I’ve put together their career numbers to date – including goals, assists, minutes played and minutes per goal contribution – and have added Mikey Johnston and Jota for comparison.
Now I’m not sure what people expect of talented young wingers at this stage in their fledgling careers, but there are some very highly thought of players listed there.
Using Mikey’s output as a stick to beat him with seems very strange and isn’t something I can get onboard with.
I’m not going to make a bold prediction that he’s going to be superstar.
My point is that it’s far too early to say someone at 23 years old won’t make it simply because they are yet to make a starting spot their own in a Champions League level side.
The Exceptions Rather than the Rule
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that this is a regular occurrence.
My quick search of clubs competing in this year’s tournament suggest there are a few notable examples.
Pulisic at Chelsea, Vini Jr at Real Madrid, Mbappe at PSG.
However, they are the exception rather than the rule.
To force your way in to a Champions League starting XI at that age requires you to be exceptional.
I don’t think Mikey is exceptional. I do think he could be a very good player for Celtic however and deserves better than some of the comments I regularly see and hear about him.
The same can be said about other young players.
Not Going to Make It at 22
Welsh and Johnston aside, one theme is often repeated, and I saw the same last summer with regards to other players – most notably Anthony Ralston.
The theme was that if a player isn’t ready at 22 then he never will be.
That’s simply not true and I’m not sure how it can be such a widely held opinion given the abundance of evidence amongst the top teams.
Some easy examples to disprove this are within the squads of most teams in this year’s Champions League.
Making the Grade
Manchester City, who I expect are this season’s favourites, have Riyad Mahrez. He only really started to show that he could play at a higher level when he was 25 years of age at Leicester City.
Jack Grealish, their £100m signing from last summer, was playing in the English Championship at 23 years old (scoring and assisting 6 goals apiece).
Liverpool has Mohamed Salah, who Chelsea gave up on at 25 years old only for him to become one of the worlds’ best players.
Virgil Van Dijk left our club at 24 to join Southampton as none of the top clubs thought he was of the required standard.
Andy Robertson (formerly on Celtic’s books!) arrived at Liverpool as a backup left back at 23 and is now viewed as one of the best in the world.
Chelsea has N’Golo Kante who Leicester picked up at 24 years old. 2 seasons later he had developed into one of the best midfielders in the world.
Bayern Munich have Serge Gnabry who Tony Pulis didn’t feel was good enough to play for his West Brom side at 20, and who by 23 had become a key player for the Bundesliga giants.
There are loads of examples like the above.
Every player has a different path to reaching their potential.
Some benefit from time out on loan. Some hit the ground running right away. Some benefit from injuries to senior players.
The common denominator seems to be players being given an injury free run of games to learn.
To build not only their own confidence but the confidence of their coaches, and finally their team’s fans, that they can make the grade.
Neither Stephen Welsh nor Mikey Johnston have had that run of games in their short careers to date.
What Worked Before At Celtic?
I also saw some comparison between James Forrest and Callum McGregor versus the two current youngsters on the fringe of the first team.
Its also not a fair comparison.
When those two (and Kieran Tierney) were breaking through, we had a few years where the budget had been downsized and we had less domestic competition.
It was simply less risky to blood youth at that time with Aberdeen as our main challenger for the title.
It was also easier for younger players to overtake the senior players as the level wasn’t as high as it is now.
How Do We Ensure Our Players Reach Their Potential?
It’s not fair to compare our players to players at other clubs where there is no expectation to win each and every game.
It’s a difficult balancing act and we need to find a solution to it.
Do we follow other Champions League clubs and loan out our top youngsters to clubs acting as finishing schools?
Or do we find a way to get them the required number of games within our own calendar?
I’ve a feeling that unless we see a change in the league structure, we will need to look for better loans for our talented youngsters.
There is already evidence that this is happening with Adam Montgomery on his second Scottish Premiership loan. (Now at St Johnstone after a spell with Aberdeen last season).
I often think when I read and hear different opinions on Celtic that we underestimate just how good a side we are.
It’s a very high level that these young players need to reach before they can challenge for a place in our first team.
I believe we can and should be more patient to allow them the time to make those improvements.
Of course, not all will, and many will make their careers away from Celtic Park, but certainly our most talented youngsters deserve every chance possible to do so.
The rewards could be seriously worth it.