Spotlight on youth: Only the Loan-ly
For years I have been critical of Celtic’s youth development and integration into the first team. It makes no sense to me that the club wins each youth league season on season, yet the majority of young players fail to move on to become first team additions. I’d be ok with Celtic’s lack of internal promotion if the youngsters are instead sold to generate revenue – but year on year we see players cut from the squad as soon as they become too old to qualify for the development team. Even more frustrating is a player being released for free who subsequently excels elsewhere – Andrew Robertson case in point.
Should the club wish to maintain any sense of competitiveness in European competition, they must produce more of its own talent in order to compensate for their apparent lack of purchasing power. This is easier said than done, how does a club afford time to nurture young talent when they are in a short term results business? One tool that Celtic appear to have focused more on in recent years is the loan market for their academy prospects. This week’s Spotlight on Youth will compare the fortunes of some of the young Hoops that were out on loan last season, with the hope of identifying a blueprint for future loan successes.
The other week my Dad and I spent the journey along the M8 to Parkhead trying to come up with the last genuine, first team quality, striker developed by the club. Simon Donnelly received credible mentions by the time we reached Shotts, Shaun Maloney was also considered (although we ultimately classified him as a midfielder). Once we hit the M74 our final answer was Charlie Nicholas. After we came to this agreement, I was sitting there thinking, this is a shoddy state of affairs.
Many, myself included, thought Tony Watt might be a genuine first team striker. However, other than Watt’s goal against Barcelona, I became frustrated seeing Lennon deploy Watt out wide the season before last as it was obvious that he is better suited to playing off central defender’s shoulder. So I was optimistic about Watt’s loan move as I felt it would give him the opportunity to get away from Lennon’s tactics and gain valuable game time.
Throughout his time in Belgium last season we received varying reports on progress – goals mixed in with attitude, fitness & fall outs. From the player’s perspective, I think the loan can be considered a success. Tony developed his reputation which resulted in a transfer to another Champions League qualifier in Standard Liege.
It’s difficult to tell at this stage if the loan has worked out well for Celtic. One on hand, the club put a player in the shop window and have subsequently received c.£1m, a sum not to be sniffed at. However, time will tell whether the club have let a quality home grown striker slip through their fingers because they were unwilling to continue nurturing someone with perceived ‘attitude’ issues. There are suggestions that Celtic may have first option to bring back Tony in the future. I hope this is true, as I’m not quite ready to write off his chances of a career at Parkhead.
Whilst I’m very much focused on the development of Scottish talent, it’s worthwhile considering Jackson Irvine’s loan spell at Kilmarnock last season – as it’s not often Celtic send a player out to a fellow top division side. The young Aussie amassed 25 appearances for Killie which is undoubtedly a positive for the player’s development. However in a season where plenty of young midfielders made their mark on the league (Pawlett, Jack, Armstrong & Gauld to name but a few), Irvine failed to stand out. That is not to say that he does not have the attributes to become a good senior player. Rather, he really needs to grab his opportunity at Ross County this season and make a big impression if he is ever going to progress in Celtic’s plans.
Dylan McGeoch’s loan move to Coventry for the second half of last season appeared, on paper, a perfect match. Steven Pressley has taken a keen interest in developing Scottish talent during his early years of club management and appeared keen to give Dylan an opportunity to play regular first team football. On signing McGeouch, Pressley told the BBC:
“There is still a lot of football to be played this season and lot of points to play for and I want Dylan to be a part of that.”
Alas McGeoch only made 8 substitute appearances for a club that was hardly brimming with talent. I went on a Coventry forum earlier this week to try and gauge City fan’s opinion on why McGeouch failed to get more game time. The answer was simple and to the point, he did nothing during his appearances that showed any sort of promise.
In my opinion, McGeoch’s suffers from not having defined position in a team yet. This is a common occurrence for academy players, particularly midfielders. He’s played in almost every position in midfield but yet to have excelled in any. Unfortunately I think the ship has passed on Dylan’s long term career at Celtic. For me his loan move to Hibs this season is more about putting him in the shop window than preparing him for Celtic’s own first team. I would be delighted if he proves me wrong.
In stark contrast, Celtic’s other loan to League One last season has proven to be a major success story. Callum McGregor has had an exceptional start to his Celtic career this season, which is in no small part down to the experience gained at Notts County last season. County were a struggling League One side, however McGregor became somewhat of a talisman, scoring 12 goals in 32 appearances from midfield.
The key differences between McGregor’s loan and all other mentioned above is first team game time and making an early impact. He joined County on the 7th of August 2013, originally on a 5 month loan deal, which was subsequently extended to the end of the season. By joining the club early in their campaign (i.e. not leaving it to the last day of the transfer window as is the case with many loans) McGregor was able to bed himself into the manager’s plans for the season. Of course scoring on your debut is also a huge help.
So what should the club’s strategy be for future loans of academy prospects? Above all else the key driver is ensuring competitive game time, regardless of the level of competition. In order to provide the best possible chance of a player getting game time, I think Celtic need to be smarter about the timing of their loans. Making youngsters available at the beginning of the transfer window provides a better chance of the player bedding themselves into clubs plans for the season. Evidence suggests that players joining mid way through the season have struggled to make an impact. Of course the demand for loan players increases as a transfer window develops, therefore in order to get loans agreed early in pre-season, Celtic need to nurture relationships with potential ‘feeder’ clubs. I don’t doubt that they do this already, but I think there is still further untapped value to be obtained by placing youngsters with clubs as early as possible in a season. Hopefully Callum McGregor will prove a valuable example.
Personally I believe that both club and country are severely lacking in the Centre Half position. As such I would be keen to get as many of Celtic’s young defenders out playing first team competitive action as possible – Marcus Fraser & Stuart Lindsay being prime candidates.
Where are they now – Simon Ferry
Those of you who watched Dundee put in an impressive performance against Celtic last week will have noticed that Simon Ferry is back in Scotland after 4 years down South.
Ferry’s youth career at Celtic (2005-2010) was plagued with injuries and he never really had an opportunity to get into the first team frame. In order to kick start his career, he moved on loan to Swindon in 2009, where he made 43 appearances in the 2009/10 campaign which ended in a Playoff final defeat to Millwall at Wembley. In the summer of 2010 Ferry made his move the Swindon permanent along with another blast from the past, Paul Caddis.
Simon went on to make over 100 appearances for the Swindon between 2010-2013 during which time the club was relegated and then promoted back to League One under Paolo Di Canio. Ferry’s time with Di Canio could be described as fraught, with the pair clashing on a number of occasions (no real surprises there!). Sadly Ferry was eventually released by Swindon in the summer of 2013 as the clubs playing budget was halved. Swindon was followed by a rather uneventful season at Portsmouth which ended with Ferry leaving by mutual consent.
This summer, Paul Hartley brought Ferry back to Scotland, no doubt familiar with the promise showed whilst the pair of them were at Celtic. Upon the move to Dundee, Hartley commented that signing Ferry would boost the club’s attack:
“He played the last year as a sitting midfielder but I see his strengths in attacking and going forward with the ball. He is young and dynamic and has proved himself in England at a very decent level.”
Given his rotten luck with injuries during his academy days, I think Simon’s career to date can be considered a success. Ferry is now 26 and is in the peak years of his career. Fingers crossed he becomes a valuable addition to the SPFL for the next few seasons.