Colin Watt with A Celtic State of Mind – Loan Watch: September 2019

For Celtic fans, there is nothing better than seeing a young, talented player develop through the youth sides and then establish themselves within the first team at Celtic Park. In recent years, we have been spoiled with the likes of Kieran Tierney, Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Liam Henderson and, more recently, Ewan Henderson and Mikey Johnston to name a few, breaking into the first team and making a big impression. The question to ask though is, “Who is next?”

At the end of last season, I took a look at the players who had been out on loan throughout the 2018/19 season, and during this campaign, I will be taking a monthly check-in to see how beneficial these loans deals are for the Celtic youngsters.
 
In total, 10 development squad players are currently out on loan at professional sides, with a further two players playing in junior football, and for this report we will concentrate on the 10 plying their trade in the lower leagues of Scotland, England and the US. For the month of September, here is the stats for our loan Bhoys (Stats taken from Transfermarkt.com).

What stands out immediately is that a lot of the players have become crucial parts of their loan club’s first eleven, with the likes of Stephen Welsh, Ross Doohan and Anthony Ralston playing every minute possible of their loan deals so far.
 
The first player we will concentrate on will be the success story of September as it stands – Jack Aitchison. Now on his third loan spell away from the club, this is a massive make-or-break year for Jack at Forest Green Rovers, and he will be hoping that a successful spell in the EFL League Two will either lead to opportunities within the Celtic first-team or a move at the right stage for his career development.

Aitchison has already made a massive impact, scoring the winning goal on his debut and impressing the Rovers fans with exciting performances. Two assists in their most recent game against heavily-backed Salford City, meant that Forrest Green now lie one point from the summit of League Two, having won five out of five in September.

Aitchison will be hoping to continue this sort of form throughout the rest of his loan spell with the aim of emulating Callum McGregor whose loan spell, at then League One Notts County, was the catalyst for his emergence within the Celtic first-team under Ronny Deila.
 
Another of the loan players who has had a great month in September is goalkeeper, Ross Doohan. Now in his second loan spell at Ayr United, Doohan picked up his 24th clean sheet in 58 appearances in United’s 3-0 victory over Arbroath. At only 21, Doohan is still very young in terms of goalkeeping career paths but the early signs are that Ross could be a very good goalkeeper and play at a higher level.

Doohan’s issue at Celtic Park is that the goalkeeper position is heavily stacked and there is only one jersey to fill. It’s not like he could come on as a sub to make an impact in the game, Doohan’s best chance of making the break through at Celtic is to continue to put in these performances for Ayr as they challenge for promotion towards the Scottish Premiership. A good Goalkeeper is the vital spine of any good side and, in Doohan, Ayr United certainly have that.
 
Staying within the Scottish Championship and very close to my home, Stephen Welsh is another of our loan players who has played every minute of his loan spell to date. Currently at Greenock Morton – my home team – Welsh was immediately thrust into the right-back position in a troubled Morton defence who haven’t looked settled all season. Losing 5-0 to Inverness, 6-0 to Dundee United and surprisingly beating Dundee 1-0, it has certainly been a mixed bag of performances for Morton.

With the Greenock side still looking to get a settled side, it is probably too early to judge how Welsh’s loan deal will go but it could be said that he will learn as much from a relegation struggle as he would a mid-table season and I’m sure he will return to Celtic Park a far more matured player for the experiences.

A quick mention to Daniel Church’s three sub appearances for East Fife, who themselves are unbeaten after eight games and only two points behind leaders Raith Rovers in Scottish League One. Church is still to dislodge long-time full-back, Patrick Slattery, from the position but seems to have impressed during his sub appearances.

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Moving up now to the Scottish Premiership, we have two of our development side out on loan. At St Johnstone, Anthony Ralston has made the right-back jersey his own, not missing a single minute of action as the Perth side look to turn around their horrible start to the season. Having been replaced in the Celtic side by Hatem Abd Elhamed and Moritz Bauer, Ralston really needs to make the most of this loan deal at the Saints to have any chance of a Celtic career upon his return.

Although only 20-years-old, Ralston has been in and around the Celtic first-team now for five seasons, making his debut against current team St Johnstone back in 2016. Ralston has now made 20 appearances for Celtic, including four in Europe, and it’s safe to say that he divides opinion amongst the Celtic support, with the majority swaying towards the “He’s not good enough” side of the divide and this loan move could be Ralston’s last chance to salvage a Celtic career or win a move to another Premiership side.

Defeats to Motherwell and Rangers leave St Johnstone in a perilous position early in the campaign. Hopefully when we review October’s performances, Ralston will have led St Johnstone on a charge up the table.
 
Next up, Ewan Henderson. The 19-year-old joined Ross County on transfer deadline day and has played in all three Scottish Premiership matches since. Over those three games, County have won twice and drawn once, meaning that, much like his Celtic teammates, Henderson still remains undefeated in league duty this season. Recently promoted County have had a very good start to the season, sitting fifth after seven games and, with St Johnstone up next before the international break, Henderson has the chance to seal his position in the side before he has to sit out of the tie against parent club, Celtic.
 
Out of all the players who have departed Celtic this season on loan, Henderson is certainly the player that fans have the highest hopes for. With his performances last season looking mature beyond his years, it is vitally important now for Ewan to get games under his belt. With Callum McGregor looking more and more like the replacement for Scott Brown in the deep middle of the Celtic midfield, a space lies open for a creative player to make the link between the midfield and forward line. Ryan Christie and Olivier Ntcham have done that excellently so far this season, but Henderson is seen as the future within that role.

County fans have commented so far that Henderson could be doing with bulking up, which is completely understandable, and I reckon Celtic’s sport science team have a plan for him to do so. The hope for Henderson’s loan deal will be similar to Christie’s spell at Aberdeen: get game time, grow and develop, fight for a first-team space at Celtic and he will certainly be one to keep an eye on any time County are on TV this year.
 
Manny Perez and Andrew Gutman joined Celtic in the January transfer window of 2019 on deadline day, despite most fans understanding that the deals were done long before. This seems to have come down to Celtic being unable to secure work permits for both players which have seen the pair of them head back to the USA for loans spells with North Carolina FC and FC Cincinnati respectively.

Perez, the younger of the two full-backs, is currently at North Carolina FC who play in the USL, the second level of senior football in the United States. Over the last five games, Perez has made four appearances from the bench, being pushed into a more advanced right-wing role, a position which led to him getting two assists in his most recent outing against Ottawa Fury.

Perez did come over to Glasgow in the summer with Gutman but unfortunately due to injury didn’t get the chance to participate in pre-season like Gutman did. This has led Perez to make his impact from the bench for the majority of the time since his return as North Carolina push for an automatic playoff berth, one point behind Louisville City with two games left to play.

Perez’s loan deal expires at the end of the current USL season and, with eight caps for the US Under 20s, he may now be eligible for a work permit and become involved in the squad for the second half of the season or loaned out in Scotland to help him adapt to the Scottish game.
 
Gutman was a player who caught my eye over the pre-season friendlies with impressive performances at left-back, during a time where the club was without a recognised player in that position. As with Perez though, Gutman had to return to the US but not before extending his contract at Celtic and moving forward to the MLS with FC Cincinnati. Gutman has managed appearances in three out of Cincinnati’s five MLS games in September, however, the team as a whole have been very poor and they find themselves bottom of the Eastern Conference with only six wins from 33 games.

It has been a difficult first season for the expansion side, however, Gutman’s loan deal looks to cover the 2020 MLS season, at which point the American will be 24. A good season in what is fast becoming a stronger league could be exactly what Gutman needs to try and seal a place within the Celtic squad upon his return.

His talent is undoubted in the US but he still needs to try and prove himself in Scotland and should a chance to bring him back over with a work permit arrive, don’t be surprised to see Gutman come back to Glasgow.
 
Gutman and Perez will certainly have competition upon their return with recent signings Jeremie Frimpong and Lee O’Connor brought up to Glasgow with a view to getting them integrated within the first team, with Frimpong already taking his opportunity in a man of the match performance against Partick Thistle.
 
That completes the wrap-up of Celtic’s loan Bhoys performances for the month of September. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that there is no mention of Kundai Benyu and it seems that since Henrik Larsson’s departure from Helsingborgs, Benyu has fallen out of favour. Perhaps if Henrik takes the Southend United job that he has been linked with, we may see Benyu follow in January.  

Overall, a very good month for the loan Bhoys and stay tuned to ACSOM throughout the 2019/20 season as we will provide monthly updates on the Bhoys’ progress as we continue to offer unique, unrivalled content on Celtic past, present and, in this case, future.

Colin Watt

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