I should preface this article by saying I’m not a Celtic supporter, but rather a Dundee United fan. I know that might instantly get some readers thinking I have no right to comment on Celtic matters, but I think this is more of a Scottish football issue and is definitely worth discussing.
Moreover, it’s a debate that plenty of Celtic fans on Twitter and other social media platforms have been keen to discuss with me thanks to my role with Sports Interactive and the Football Manager series.
But what is that debate?
Well I don’t think Celtic are utilising their youth system properly and are failing those who are part of it.
I know that there’s this notion that Celtic can’t afford to risk dropping points by bringing untested youngsters into the team, and I also know that people say that the Celtic fans aren’t patient enough to give these youngsters a chance, but I can’t say I agree with that.
Through my work, I come into contact with loads of level-headed Celtic fans. Now fair enough, these tend to be younger guys from the Sky Sports/Football Manager generation, but in the main, these guys are crying out for youngsters to be given a chance, especially when the alternative is ordinary players from abroad like Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki.
Similarly, as much as I don’t want to disrespect my club or the others in the SPFL, I really don’t think Celtic are at risk of losing the title if they give a couple of guys a chance.
Now obviously I don’t expect Celtic to do what Dundee United have done – even though it’s been successful for us so far – and base their entire team around young Scots. They’ve shown that their own recruitment policy can work, with successes like Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper and their run in the Champions League last season.
But now, in January 2014, when the league title is all but wrapped up and Europe is finished with until July/August, what’s to stop Celtic – who have openly stated they feel they need to add more bodies to their squad – from promoting some of their youngsters to the first team and giving them a regular game?
Sure, they might not be Champions League standard now, but if they never get games, the fact is that they never will be. Hell, they’ll never even be domestic class for Celtic if they don’t play games.
This is frustrating for me as a Scot because Celtic must surely have some of our nation’s most talented youngsters in the Under-18 age group rotting away not playing football. Our national team could improve if they utilised the talents in their youth system better.
Look at Dylan McGeough as a prime example of that. He made his debut in November 2011 at the age of 18 and was tipped by those who know a thing or two about youth football as being one of the brightest talents to come through a Scottish club’s system in years. But in the two years and two months since his debut he has only played about 10 hours of league football for Celtic, and this season, only 20 minutes. I know he’s had the occasional injury, but not that many.
To give you a comparison, Ryan Gauld has played almost double that this season in the league, and he’s younger now than when McGeough – who turns 21 today – was when he debuted. Indeed, Gauld has played more than double the minutes of football this season than the combined total of all Celtic players under-21 who aren’t out on loan.
It’s accepted that for young players to develop, they have to actually play football at a competitive level (and that’s not something the SPFL has at reserve or u-20 level anymore, but that’s another story entirely) so it looks like McGeough will be a young talent wasted if his career continues along its current trajectory. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’ll probably end up at another club in Scotland like Kilmarnock or Partick Thistle, but if he had been given a regular run of games from early on, he could have been a Celtic and Scotland player of a high standard, and he could more than likely have made Celtic some good money too.
But who’s to blame?
Is it Neil Lennon and the First Team staff for not giving kids more than a token chance? In part, yes. Lennon gave James Forrest a chance, and he should be commended for that, but Forrest was known to him from his time coaching the youngsters so he must have had faith in him to do a job at first team level. Perhaps – and I say this without knowing how Lennon operates on a day to day basis – he doesn’t spend enough time with the kids to have the faith to give them a chance?
Is it the fans? Again, I think in part it is. There will be some fans who will get on players backs, but then again, all I hear these days is that Celtic Park has a poor atmosphere, with those same fans not happy about the style of play or the standard of player. No matter what, fans will always get behind the products of their own youth system. They’ll give them extra leeway and forgive them for any errors quicker than they might a foreign flop signing.
Is it the players themselves? It could well be. To go back to the example of McGeough, he said earlier this season that he didn’t want to go out on loan and would rather fight for his place in the team. Well that fight seems well and truly lost. I know he feels that he wants to play in a certain position on the park, but surely anywhere on the park is better than in the stand?
Or is it the parents of these kids? It’s them who send their children to Celtic at youth level when it’s quite clear that they’d be better served getting a footballing education at a club who might actually play them. If they are good enough, they’ll get there eventually. They’ve only got to look at Celtic’s captain to know that’s a realistic option.
I suspect the blame lies with all of the above.
Some Celtic fans have said that they feel the club’s best option is to send the players out on loan.
Well as I’ve said, some of them aren’t interested in that, while others like Tony Watt – who lets not forget isn’t actually a product of the Celtic youth system and had made his first team debut for Airdrie Utd well before his 18th birthday – have been branded as having a poor attitude by their host clubs.
The one bright spark at the moment is Callum McGregor who is reputed to be doing well at Notts County. But don’t kid yourself; despite what some people might say, the SPFL Premiership is of a higher standard than the arse end of League One in England and it’ll be a big ask for McGregor to walk straight into the Celtic team after that. Certainly a bigger ask than if he’d done a job at a club like Aberdeen or Hibs.
Maybe the unpopular truth is that if Celtic are only interested in instant success, a youth system is a bit pointless for them. Why not just let other clubs bring these players up, give them 100 games before they are 20 and then buy them? Would that not be cheaper? And you’re not telling me that Celtic’s acquisition of Amido Balde is better than if they’d signed Johnny Russell?
I expect that won’t be the popular choice, but you’ve only got to look at Andy Robertson as the greatest example of them all. He was released from Celtic as a kid because he wasn’t considered good enough. So he went down the leagues, played for Queen’s Park and has done such a good job for my club that he’s being watched by English Premiership sides and is tipped for International honours soon. But I wonder what happened to the guys from his age group who were kept on by Celtic. Where are they? And where would Robertson have been if he’d stayed? Not in the Celtic first team, that’s for sure.