Celtic has long been known in Scottish Football for its youth development system. Players like Dalglish, McGrain, McStay, Macari, Burns, the list goes on and to this day the club is still developing great talent who will either star for Celtic or showcase their talents in other sides. Celtic lined up for the last Glasgow Derby with 5 Scottish players in the side and Oli Burke on the bench. Of those 5, three of them can be traced back to Celtic’s academy, with match winner James Forrest one of them. Since Lennoxtown opened in 2007, over 30 players have come through and made at least one first team appearance, whereas some others such as Andy Robertson have gone on to have great careers.
On the subject of youth development, I was recently asked a question, where does James Forrest rank, in terms of the best player to come through the system since Paul McStay? Now that is not an easy answer and it made me think, Is Forrest the best player to come through since Paul McStay? If not, then who else?
For a lot of Celtic fans, the obvious answer when reading this would be Kieran Tierney and that is a very solid argument. Tierney has been a revelation since making his debut back in 2015 under then manager Ronny Deila, making 167 appearances and scoring 9 goals, if you include his strike against Manchester City which UEFA ruled as an OG. Not only that though Tierney has shown leadership qualities than have earned him the captain’s armband on several occasions for club and country. This also hasn’t gone unnoticed amongst his fellow professionals, with Tierney winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award as well as the Scottish Football Writers Young Player of the Year award for the last 3 seasons.
He has very quickly become one of Celtic’s most important players and it is noticeable that the left-hand side of the field for Celtic is lacking when Tierney is not playing. Reported interest from the English Premier League and abroad is no surprise and most fans are resigned to the fact that Kieran may one day decide to move to pastures new, earning the club a lot of money. For me, KT will hopefully be at Celtic for years to come and I’m sure as a fan he dreams as much as us fans do of him lifting the 10th consecutive league trophy aloft either as captain or alongside Broony. Regardless of what career move Tierney makes down the line, he will forever be ranked as one of the greatest Celtic full-backs of the modern era, if he were to remain at Celtic for years to come however, then the argument could become who was better McGrain or Tierney?
Another potential candidate in the ‘best since McStay award’ could be a fellow Scottish Football Writers Young Player of the Year, Aiden McGeady. Aiden introduced himself to the Celtic fans back in 2004 in a league match at Tynecastle. McGeady started the game and scored a wonderful goal only 17 minutes in, as good an introduction as you could dream of. In all, he played 252 games for Celtic, scoring another 16 times after his debut goal, although more could be said about his assists and team play rather than the goals he scored. At times McGeady was unplayable, especially in season 2007-08. Champions League performances against Benfica and AC Milan (then European Champions) and performances away from home against Aberdeen, a game in which he scored and set up 3 others in a 5-1 victory. That season will also be remembered for the loss of another great Celtic academy graduate – Tommy Burns. A man who McGeady had been mentored by and looked up to, Burns would often be the first one to throw an arm around him and speaking recently with Simon Ferry, Aiden credits his career to the advice and guidance that Burns offered him. Unfortunately for Celtic fans, McGeady never reached his full potential that many fans believed he could, and Aiden searched for a new club and a new challenge which he found in the shape of a £9.5 million transfer to Spartak Moscow. McGeady’s career, arguably has never reached the heights that he believed he had the potential to and he has never really had the same level of success as he did at Celtic, looking back on his Celtic career, he is certainly one of the best since McStay but is he the best?
A player that looks to be cut from the same cloth and could be considered as another viable candidate for the ‘Best Since McStay Award’ is Callum McGregor. McGregor was loaned out to Notts County back in the summer of 2013 and made an instant impact scoring on his debut and ending up as County’s top goal-scorer with 14 goals for the season. Upon his return to Celtic, he was throw into Champions League Qualifiers and scored on his Celtic debut (this theme continues later..) against KR Reykjavik. Under Ronny Deila, McGregor had a hard time cementing a place in the side containing the likes of Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Kris Commons, Stefan Johansen and Nir Bitton, however he still managed to make an impact coming off the bench and scoring important goals. The Invincibles season of 2016-17 was the season where McGregor really stamped his place within the team and made himself a hero amongst the support with goals against Rangers in successive victories within a week, the 5-1 victory at Ibrox and the opening goal in the Scottish Cup Semi Final.
McGregor this season would be a lot of fans first name on the team sheet and it’s safe to say when the player of the year awards come around, both for Celtic and across the SPFL it would be a massive shock for Callum not to be nominated. During Scott Brown’s time out of the side earlier in the season, McGregor stepped up and showed his class anchoring the team to some of the best performances of the season, a 6-0 victory at St Johnstone and a 5-0 victory over the early pacesetters Hearts. His form has cumulated in being made captain by Alex McLeish for Scotland’s horror show away to Kazakhstan, however result aside it shows his leadership qualities and the importance he has for both club and country. Still only 25, McGregor has the best years of his career still to come and is a great example of the development system at Lennoxtown.
There are certainly other players who deserve honourable mentions for their contributions to Celtic who have come through the youth academy. Players like former captain Stephen McManus, an anchor at the heart of the defence alongside Gary Caldwell making 203 appearances in green and white winning 3 league titles. Charlie Mulgrew, another man who has captained the Celts on several occasions, a mainstay with Lennon’s first reign as Celtic manager. A versatile player who produced vital goals both domestically and in Europe. The late Liam Miller was a player who fans had great expectations for after a great breakthrough season in 2003-04, unfortunately a move to Manchester United didn’t develop Liam quite like the form from his Celtic career had led many to believe he could achieve. Spells at Hibs, Sunderland and a spell in Australia meant Miller had a decent career but he remains a case of “what if” for a lot of Celtic Fans.
And then there’s James Forrest, the man who started this whole conversation. Some would call Forrest ‘consistently inconsistent or a player who flatters to deceive, personally I have been a big fan of Forrest, a player who at just age 27 is 10 seasons into his Celtic career and approaching his testimonial next season. There will probably be a lot of people reading this a bit surprised that Forrest has been around for so long but to pardon the pun, Forrest is very much part of the furniture within Celtic Park. Forrest made his debut for Celtic on May 1st 2010, replacing another contender for this award, Aidan McGeady, replicating the Irish man by scoring 6 minutes into his own debut in a 4-0 victory for the Hoops over Motherwell at Parkhead. (A great finish that I highly recommend looking for on YouTube) A regular under Neil Lennon, Forrest excited yet frustrated the fans with exceptional performances but yet seeming to find himself sidelined with injury, a trait that followed him until recently. Between 2010 and 2016, Forrest only managed once to make more than 20 appearances in the league and it seemed for a period of time that Forrest would let his contract run out at the middle of the 2016-17 season and leave Celtic. At the time, the phone-ins were full of conflicting views on Forrest, from the fans desperate to see him leave and fans who blamed Deila for his lack of progress, however this all changed after the appointment of Brendan Rodgers. Under Rodgers and now Lennon, Forrest has been a revelation, seemingly injury free, he looks to be making up for lost time.
From scoring the first goal of the Invicibles run away at Tynecastle to scoring the winner on Sunday in the Glasgow Derby, 41 of Forrest’s 71 goals for Celtic have come in the last 3 seasons with another 43 assists in that period of time, it shows how important Forrest has become within the Celtic side. Performances this season for both club and country have been exceptional from Forrest and at just 27, we can only hope that as he approaches the prime years of his career, he continues to contribute these numbers and more as Celtic charge towards 8 in a row and beyond.
Paul McStay will go down forever as legend of Celtic, a man who turned down offers from the likes of Inter Milan to stay at Celtic during one of its most unsuccessful periods. This article is not set out to compare any of these players to Paul McStay but instead to find the player that could be classified as the best in the era since his retirement. Celtic famously had the Quality Street Gang back in the late 60s, which produced such great players as Dalglish, Hay, Connelly and McGrain amongst others and it wouldn’t be naïve to look at the recent graduates who are currently plying their trade in the Celtic side and ask the question of whether this is the 2nd edition of the Quality Street Gang? McGregor, Forrest and Tierney continue to lead Celtic to trophy after trophy whilst also being mainstays in the Scottish national team. As for the best since McStay though…. I’m not sure I’ve decided yet but maybe you have? Let us know – I’ll continue to think of my answer!
Colin WattListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast