The Dilemma of Youth Development at Celtic

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There was some criticism of the club this week when news broke of Leo Hjelde’s potential move to Leeds United. Some of the concerns are perfectly valid but I don’t believe the loss of Hjelde, or indeed any of our young players, is a simple issue for Celtic to resolve. What options do Celtic currently have available to them to aid player development?

In my opinion it’s all about giving the players the game time they need at each stage of their development until they reach the level required to be able to contribute to the first team. Each player is wholly unique in this aspect. Not every 17/18 year old will be a Kieran Tierney who is ready to step straight into Celtic’s first team squad.

Celtic B

The introduction of the B side into the Lowland League will be a great help to our younger players. It’s a better level than under 18s and exposing these young players to playing against seasoned professionals will be a benefit. It’s similar in many ways to Andy Robertson dropping down to Queens Park earlier in his career (ironically following his release from Celtic). However, with that said we’re already seeing that certain players may only learn so much at this level and may yet need further development. Our 10-0 victory over Vale of Leithen last weekend being a prime example. I’m not sure how much players learn in games like that.

So What’s The Alternative? 

Loans. And loans are tricky. Will players play regularly first and foremost? Minimum appearance clauses can be added into the terms of loan contracts but doing so will also limit the number of clubs willing to take on a player on such conditions. In addition, will they be playing a style or against styles/opponents that will genuinely benefit their development? Again, this further limits the clubs we can loan our players out to. What if the player does better than expected? I think this is possibly what has happened with Leo Hjelde.

In hindsight, Celtic should have signed Hjelde up on a new deal before loaning him out, thus protecting the asset. However, what did Celtic have to offer him and what enticements could be offered to secure him on a new/longer deal? There are still several obstacles for Hjelde to establish himself as a first team player at Celtic, and young players get impatient – especially when Premier League clubs come calling. We currently have Dane Murray (18 years old) and Stephen Welsh (22 years old) both ahead of Hjelde in the pecking order for the centre half positions in the first team. This leaves Celtic in the difficult position of having to make a call on whether to give Hjelde a more lucrative contract for a young player than generally would be justified, and at a wage level higher than what he might make at a sizeable English club. Into the bargain, if you’re giving a 17 year old development player that kind of contract, how does that impact the players who are already slightly ahead of him? Does it lead to unrest and disgruntlement in the dressing rooms at Lennoxtown?

Effective Use of the Loan System

We’ve seen Celtic use loans well in the past with positive outcomes that don’t always result in us ending up with a first team player. Ryan Christie however is a good example of someone who made the step from the Celtic bench to good SPFL side on loan and returned first team ready. His time at Aberdeen did him the world of good and Celtic have since reaped the rewards of this. Kris Ajer is another who undoubtedly developed during his loan season at Kilmarnock whilst Brendan Rodgers was in charge, with the club ultimately receiving a £13.5M+ fee for him in recent weeks.

Liam Henderson benefitted from his time at Hibs, but in a different way from Christie and Ajer. He returned as good a player as he could be in my opinion (with a 2016 Scottish Cup medal in his back pocket for good measure!) but wasn’t quite good enough to make the break through to the Celtic first team. As a professional however it provided a good outcome for Henderson who has since gone on to forge out a career with several clubs in the Italian leagues. However, football is changing and clubs are now focussing more on developing their own young players. The attractiveness of a Dundee Utd or an Aberdeen for example choosing to help develop one of our young players for us is decreasing with each passing season. The likelihood of an English Championship or lower Premiership side being a finishing school for one of our young players is non-existent.

If not loans, then what?

So what options are there to further develop our young players? Well, not a lot. We can loan players up to a level where there is little chance that Celtic can be confident that a player is going to make it. Do we gamble on giving them big contracts in the hope they do make it (in Hjelde’s case for example) to fend off clubs waiting to pounce? Probably not. And even if so, will a young player sign a contract if they see a better option for them to play the games required to reach their potential?

Probably not.

Do we give the players games in the first team when they aren’t ready?

When a covid-hit Celtic took to the field against Hibs at Celtic Park back in January we saw young Cameron Harper lead the line, to very little effect on the night. He wasn’t ready at that stage in his development but despite that, we’ve since gone on to lose him to New York Red Bulls in the MLS for next to no fee. We need to find a way to bridge the gap between Celtic’s first team level in the SPFL and Scottish Championship/English League 1 level where our young players can grow.

Some Questions to Ponder

Q: Could this be foreign loans? Finding teams in leagues in Scandinavia, France, Belgium and The Netherlands for example who would be willing to play our young players?

Q: Would a larger SPFL help by allowing more “easy” games towards the end of a season where the risk of playing one or two young players is less of a concern?

Q: Would a restructure of the whole league pyramid allow for B teams to be able to play at a higher level like we see in Spain and Portugal for example?

Q: Would a change to the loan rules help to allow players to go out as tactical short term fixes both to the side needing the loan or to address a shortcoming in a players skill set? For example, allowing players to play for a month at several clubs rather than be stuck at a club for 6 months or so where their development has stalled. ?

It’s a huge problem for us, and until its fixed we’ll unfortunately continue to see talented players leave Celtic without reaching their full potential at the club. In my opinion it’s too simplistic to say that Celtic are simply making a mess of things. There are so many factors at play, as discussed. I also believe this problem isn’t exclusive to Celtic. If things were to change it could help all teams in Scotland, including the national side. It’s in all our interests to ensure that our young Scottish players get the best possible chance of reaching their full potential. If not then not only do we as a club lose out on talented players, but the players themselves may be lost to the game altogether, and that perhaps is the biggest tragedy of all.

Further Reading: How is this tackled elsewhere?

Balkans football expert @timomouse wrote a great article on how Croatian clubs have tackled this issue and how the Croatian national side continue to benefit from this. I believe there are several things we can learn from how they’ve approached it. It’s well worth a read: What do Croatia do differently?

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