Colin Watt with A Celtic State of Mind – Who will be Celtic’s first-choice keeper as we head towards 10?

The fixture list has been revealed; all Celtic eyes are focussed on the first weekend of August, and the first steps towards the historic ’10-in-a-row’. The rage from others still rumbles on from the season that was, and that fire will still have embers for months to come with ongoing court battles … but it is time to look forward and for Celtic “the first line of attack is defence”.

It has been claimed that a player’s second stint at a club struggles to be as successful as the first time around, but in the case of Fraser Forster, his fourth spell was every bit as impressive as the previous three, if not more so! From single-handedly winning the League Cup final against Rangers to wonder saves against Lazio, season 2019/20 was surely the best of Forster’s career.

Now, as the new season draws near, it looks likely we will be without the ‘Gran Muralla’ after he decided that he would fight for the Number 1 jersey at Southampton and, to be fair to the big man, he should already be in that position. He is a far better keeper than Alex McCarthy and Angus Gunn; in fact, I would go as far as saying he should be England’s first-choice. Forster’s reinvigorated form is down to two main things: playing week in and week out and also the coaching and guidance of Stevie Woods.

Woods has been at Celtic for a number of years and has developed goalkeepers far above the level they were upon their arrival at Parkhead. He may have saved the careers of Craig Gordon, Fraser Forster and Artur Boruc, as well as aiding the development of Scott Bain, to where he was competent as Celtic’s goalkeeper for a prolonged period despite not fulfilling his potential previously at Dundee and Hibs.

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Stevie Woods joined Celtic in 2007 in a full-time capacity but had been involved behind the scenes since 2000, coaching the young goalkeepers whilst still appearing regularly for Motherwell. Upon hanging his gloves up, Woods accepted a role at Dunfermline as first-team Coach, lasting a season before Celtic were able to offer him a contract full-time working with the development squad. At the time, Jim Blyth, another highly regarded goalkeeper coach, was Strachan’s choice but, upon the manager’s departure, Woods was promoted to ‘First Team Goalkeeper Coach’ under Tony Mowbray. The fact Woods has remained in that role to the present day shows the quality of his work. Most managers now come in and replace a whole backroom staff as soon as they take over, but Woods is now onto his fourth manager in ten years, which shows the belief in his ability to produce the best goalkeepers for Celtic.

So, reading the comments from Gavin Strachan’s first press conference in which the new coach admitted that Woods was supporting Nick Hammond in narrowing down the options, fills me with confidence. Woods recognizes what it’s like to be the best goalkeeper in Scotland, having trained and coached several in his thirteen years at the club. Taking a closer look at the options named in the papers over the last week or so, there seems to be a common theme; Neil Lennon wants a commanding goalkeeper who fills the net. Vasilis Barkas, Joe Hart and David Marshall are all 6′ 3″ or above, and all come with a pedigree of international experience.

Barkas has had previous experience of playing at Celtic Park where he excelled in AEK Athens’ play-off victory in 2018 and, with previous interest from Udinese, Montpellier and Aston Villa, the Greek international certainly looks an interesting prospect. With ten caps for Greece and a rumoured fee of around £5M, Barkas could be a big part of Neil Lennon’s transfer strategy for this season. We are led to believe by Peter Lawwell and the Celtic board that money is there to spend, for the right player and, with the signings over the last few seasons of Odsonne Edouard for £9m and Christopher Jullien for £7m, we can only hope that the right money is being spent on what arguably could be one of the critical factors in deciding the title outcome…

Hart, now 33, has almost done it all when it comes to his career: for England, 75 caps; Premier League trophies; played on the greatest stages of them all… Yet something just doesn’t seem right as, from the moment he was dropped by Pep Guardiola, his career has dived more spectacularly than Tom Daley could dream of. A bench-warmer at Burnley, his career lies on the scrapheap currently, much similar to that of Craig Gordon when he was released following his injury at Sunderland. Does Woods think he could repeat his success again with Hart? It’s a ‘No’ from me, but ultimately that decision will be left to Nick Hammond and Stevie Woods. If they both believe that Hart can regain the form which won him the Golden Glove award in the Premier League (the self-proclaimed best league in the world), then, maybe it’s worth a punt (especially on a free transfer)?

And finally, David Marshall, solid enough and recently released from financially-troubled Wigan Athletic, at age 35. Is he the one to lead Celtic to ‘ten- in-a-row’, and thus close the chapter on his career in the same way it opened all those years ago in the Nou Camp? Again, I wouldn’t go for Marshall. I think he would be a great backup but at his age how long would we really get out of him? You have to remember this is the same David Marshall who was second choice at Hull City behind Allan McGregor.

Let’s be honest here on the Craig Gordon situation. Craig was always going to be the third-choice goalkeeper this season, behind Scott Bain and whoever was to be the first. Craig Gordon was offered a bumper contract by Brendan Rodgers and the board to fend off interest from Chelsea, who were seriously interested in taking him to Stamford Bridge as part of a UK-based backup required for European Football. Gordon was allegedly on around £20,000 a week at Celtic. As part of their offer (for a third-choice goalkeeper), Celtic are believed to have offered Gordon £4000 to remain at the club. Understandably for a player, that is a massive decrease and Gordon himself claims to be on more than that at Hearts. If this is true, it hints there may be more to the investment by James Anderson than meets the eye!

Whoever is chosen, I really hope it is Stevie Woods’ first choice and we back a coach that has been so good to us over the years. His ability to transform and develop goalkeepers is widely acknowledged, even at international level and I’m sure he himself is looking forward to pushing the next Celtic goalkeeper to greatness, and help drive the team to this most important title.

Colin Watt

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