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 who all broke into the first team and made a big impression. The question to ask though is, “Who’s 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, this campaign, I’ll be taking a monthly check in to see how beneficial these loans deals are for the Celtic youngsters.
Since the September review, another two young Celts have ventured out on loan – with Conor Hazard joining Dundee on an emergency loan and young under-18s’ striker Connor McBride joining the David Irons revolution at Stenhousemuir. In total now, 12 development squad players are currently out on loan at professional sides, with a further two players playing in junior football. For this report, we will concentrate on the 12 plying their trade in the lower leagues of Scotland, England and the US. For the month of October, here are the stats for our loan Bhoys:
What is pleasing from the table above is that there are a lot of players who are getting regular minutes at a decent level, such as Jack Aitchison, Anthony Ralston and Ross Doohan. Breaking down the table above, we will start at Scotland’s League Two and work our way up. One player who we will understandably not focus on is Kundai Benyu. Clearly, there is something not right with Benyu’s attitude as he went more than two months without kicking a ball for Helsingborgs and has since returned to Celtic… a future at the club seems unlikely.
Starting with League Two, we have our new loanee, Connor McBride, who made his senior debut at Stenhousemuir when he came off the bench in a defeat to Edinburgh City. It’s early days in his loan spell but, in the games since, Stenny manager David Irons seems to be giving McBride good minutes, so he may be one to keep an eye on throughout this series.
Taking the leap up to League One and, in particular, one of the high-flyers within the division, East Fife, we find left-back, Daniel Church. Last month, I mentioned that Church was playing back-up to the regular left-back at the club, Patrick Slattery, but October seemed to be the month where Church made the position his own, lasting the whole 90 minutes in each of his three appearances during the month as the Fifers found themselves second only on goal difference to league leaders Raith Rovers.
As we continue climbing up the Scottish football pyramid, we reach the Scottish Championship, where four of the young Celts are looking to make an impression this season. Starting once again close to my hometown, we have Stephen Welsh at Greenock Morton. The ‘Ton have certainly had a difficult start to the season and, as of writing this, find themselves only two points from the bottom of the table. Welsh has started every game of his loan spell so far, as Morton manager David Hopkins seems to favour a stable side despite their worrying form. Welsh will certainly be in for a difficult time throughout the rest of the season at Morton but this will be a great test of his character and he should mature throughout this process.
Moving up the table in the Championship, well only just one place, we find Alloa Athletic and centre back, Robbie Deas. Over the month of October, Deas played every single minute for The Wasps as they battle for their survival within the league. With a victory over title favourites Dundee United, the month started well for Deas as he continued to build a partnership with Andy Graham in the heart of defence. It’s a partnership which excites the Wasps fans too with some even calling for Deas to be included in the Scotland squad… Tongue in cheek, I’m sure, but impressive nonetheless. For a player that turns 20 next year, we can only hope his development continues at Alloa and, come pre-season next year, we should see how Deas fits in with the first-team squad at Celtic Park.
A player I may have jinxed last time out is Ayr United loan keeper, Ross Doohan. In last month’s update I highlighted that Ross had picked up his 24th clean sheet during his loan spell at Ayr. However, since then, Ayr have had a bit of a poor spell, losing three of their four matches in October with only a solitary victory over Greenock Morton to show for their efforts. Conceding nine goals across the month could be seen as an issue for a team sitting second in the Championship but it really is a league where anyone can beat anyone on any given day. Doohan’s performances have still been impressive enough to keep him in the Scotland Under-21 setup and many of the match reports for Ayr highlight Ross as a key factor for their successes so far this season.
Finally, we look at one of the new loan players turning out in the Championship – Conor Hazard. Signing for Dundee on 24 October after regular goalkeeper Jack Hamilton had to have surgery to remove his appendix, Hazard has very quickly become a fans’ favourite and is receiving lots of plaudits. In what is his third loan spell away from Celtic Park since turning professional in 2017, Hazard is looking to turn this loan spell into an opportunity to force his way into contention ahead of Craig Gordon and Scott Bain. Both Hazard and Doohan have been impressive in their loan spells, however, October finishes 1-0 to Conor Hazard with his Dundee team beating Doohan’s Ayr by 2 goals to 1 in Hazard’s second game for the Dee.
It’s a case of mixed fortunes when we look at the Bhoys on loan within the Scottish Premiership, with one of the guys playing all but 8 minutes of their team’s games in October and the other only managing just over an hour across the month.
Starting with Anthony Ralston, a player who many would say doesn’t have a future at the club, his improvement in form has coincided with St Johnstone’s turnaround from their disastrous start to the season.
Climbing off the bottom of the table with 7 points from 12 in October, it’s safe to say it looks like the Super Saintees are finally turning the tide and Ralston has contributed with a clean sheet at home to fellow strugglers Hearts. With games against Motherwell and Aberdeen in November still to come, Ralston has the opportunity to continue to impress and to do so against some of the better teams in the league can only help his future prospects. At Celtic, Ralston has the unfortunate position of likely being behind Elhamed, Bauer, Frimpong and new Irish international, Lee O’Connor. Therefore, performances like this will help not only his future Celtic prospects but put him in the shop window if he decides that is best for his career.
On the other side of the coin, we have a highly-rated prospect in Ewan Henderson who, over the course of October, hardly kicked a ball. Granted, one of the matches within October was against his parent club, however Henderson was also left on the bench for the visits from Rangers and St Johnstone whilst only playing just over an hour against Hibs. The jump from youth to senior football is certainly massive and it can be easier to come into a side that is playing well with very good players, like Celtic, than become relied upon to be one of the best players in the side, like Henderson has been tasked with at County.
The Staggies have certainly had a good start to the season, considering that they are newly-promoted to the Premiership but with a favourable run of games as we head towards the January break, they have a real chance to cement their position within the top six, and with games coming thick and fast, Henderson has a real chance to show the Dingwall faithful exactly what he can do. With news coming out of Celtic that there is interest in extending the loan deal of Daniel Arzani and interest being reignited in David Turnbull, Henderson will want to showcase his talents within the league to remind Neil Lennon that if these players want to be in the side, they have to be better than him.
Moving down south, we find what has been the success story of this year’s loan players – Jack Aitichison. I mentioned last time out that Jack had fast become a fans’ favourite down at Forrest Green and October was no different. With two goals in four games for the Green Devils in the month of October, as well as a man of the match performance against Mansfield Town, Aitchison is still (at the time of writing this article) on a roll, scoring four in four games. Forrest Green’s second place position within Football League Two is largely down to the Aitchison effect and they could go top with a victory in their game in hand.
Local news outlets have been praising the young forward on a regular basis and local website Gloucestershire Live reported, “The Scottish attacker is a clinical finisher; rarely missing any opportunities he gets… and he will undoubtedly make it at a strong level in the future.” Considering Celtic’s reliance upon Odsonne Edouard thus far this season, if Leigh Griffiths cannot return to form by the time January comes around, could we see the return of Aitchison to back up the Frenchman? If he keeps up this form, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.
A final mention to our American loan Bhoys Andrew Gutman and Manny Perez who have wrapped up their seasons stateside at FC Cincinnati and North Carolina respectively. Gutman now has MLS experience under his belt having played for the newest expansion team since his return to America. Both teams did not progress beyond the league stage of the competitions, but both put in impressive performances throughout the campaign. Both players have arrived in Glasgow for a short training spell at Lennoxtown before returning to the same sides for the 2020 season. It looks like work permit issues will prevent these guys from making an impact at the club for a while yet and even upon their return to Glasgow, they could find themselves sitting third or fourth choice at the club with the likes of Frimpong, O’Connor, Elhamed, Bolingoli and Taylor all having the chance to show their worth in competitive action.
The transfers could turn out to be a commercial success for the club should either of them make the breakthrough into the US national side, especially with the increase in interest of soccer in America.
All in all, a fairly successful month for the Loan Bhoys, with several of the players becoming essential members of their loan sides and, as we head towards the winter break, I’m sure we’ll see some more of the development side join this list.
Let me know your thoughts on the report, I’ll be back early December with a round-up on how the Bhoys performed throughout November as we look to see which of them can break through and become future stars at Paradise.
Colin WattWatch Professor Willy Maley with A Celtic State of Mind