Kevin Graham with A Celtic State of Mind – James McCarthy & Andrew Robertson were the ones that got away… Or were they?

I still get asked a question: what do I want to do with my life? And I still give the same answer that you would have got if you had asked the six or seven-year-old me.

I want to play for Celtic.

Maybe that just shows a lack of imagination and purpose in my life, considering I am now shaking hands with middle-age problems and my right ankle explodes like an airbag when I look at a football. I was never near playing for Celtic due to a lack of any sort of ability and was probably closer to being the first man on Mars.

I’ve never felt that crushing disappointment of being rejected in football. I knew in my head I would never make it and didn’t need any tracksuited expert to tell me that. I played in teams and with a quick look around I saw better players who would go on to sign S-forms, play professionally and others who just faded from the game and some from life itself.

A Celtic State of Mind has spoken to a few coaches during this lockdown, such as John Joyce, who has worked with Hamilton, Clyde and Annan Athletic. Many of his peers regard him as one of the best coaches in Scotland. The coaches all have similar stories when they talk about players they have played with or coached. They reminisce about near misses and players who should have played at a higher level than they reached. What is clear is there is a fine line between success and failure. Sometimes this is down to the player. Sometimes it’s bad luck. Sometimes the players don’t meet the right coach or get the right guidance at the right time of life.

One of the greatest false narratives and spin that fans love is that of a player leaving their club then going on to be a success elsewhere. The sense of loss grows if the player leaves as a youngster. This is the tale of two players in the recent history of Celtic…

James McCarthy and Andrew Robertson used to be at Celtic don’t you know? I’m sure you’ve heard this many times.

Listen to ROGER MITCHELL with A Celtic State of Mind here:

I remember the first time I saw James McCarthy. Hamilton had been promoted and played at Celtic Park in October 2008. James was a standout in the midfield, even though Celtic comfortably won the game. “The wee fella in the middle, with the ginger hair, had everything you would want…” I told everyone for months. Tenacious in the tackle, tidy on the ball, eye for goal and movement that was easy on the eye.

His performances that season inevitably brought him to the attention of scouts. This was his first season in Scotland’s top division after two seasons playing in the Championship, where he gained valuable experience. He did look like he was going to end up at Celtic but joined Wigan for £1.1 million. His total career transfers fees now total over £22 million but, as John Joyce tells us, he was nearly lost to the game altogether.

“James McCarthy was at Celtic and (they) let him go, but again we can all go down that route. Some players grow quicker and develop quicker… and then he went to Livingston. There was an approach from Celtic to bring him back but it wasn’t right for him. Willie Melville was inspirational for James McCarthy being still in the game, never mind playing for the clubs he played for. Willie got him to Livingston, to come to Hamilton and really fought his corner. Billy Reid was instrumental in his career giving him games.”

McCarthy played over 100 times for Hamilton before his move to Wigan. Would he have got that game time at Celtic? We all know the answer to that.

Recently a struggling tabloid had a headline that suggested that Celtic had missed the chance with Andy Robertson and he wouldn’t want to come back. The headline was misleading, of course, and the story exaggerated what happened to the 14-year-old Robertson at Celtic.

John Joyce was the manager of Annan Athletic when he first saw Robertson: “I spoke to the guys who coached Andy Robertson at Celtic, but again Robertson is a bit of a freak one. Anyone can make that decision on a player at that time and say ‘No too sure’. My second game with Annan was against Queen’s Park. I’m obviously close to the touchline watching him running by me and he’s not even breathing. Honestly, he was going past and I was thinking, ‘That boy has got an engine’. Andy Robertson back then – oh, my goodness!

“We played them again and the boy was up and down the park, his crossing was a delight and I’m thinking, ‘Why has no one touched him?’ But, again, this is a freak one. I’ve got to say he’s always had the attributes but maybe with it being Scotland we look for the bigger guy and maybe he wasn’t big enough at that time.”

What John described happens thousands of times every summer at football clubs. Coaches have to make a decision on what they see in front of them and gamble on what the player could turn out to be. There are so many tales of players failing to make the grade, or coaches and scouts missing players. What this holds a candle to is the way clubs select footballers. It’s a lottery based on opinion. McCarthy and Robertson found coaches who believed in them and who helped to make them the players they became.

The Andy Robertson starring for Liverpool is not the Andy Robertson that left Celtic. That’s the Andy Robertson who played at Hampden, Tannadice and in Hull. The Andy Robertson Dundee United got from Queen’s Park would have been a different player if they had signed him directly from our youth setup.

The James McCarthy I saw on that cold October day wouldn’t have been the James McCarthy I would have seen maybe making his debut for Celtic. Both players gained football experience and life experience that they wouldn’t have got at Celtic.

And it pains me to write that.

So does that mean that Celtic are not identifying youth well enough?

John doesn’t think so, as he says: “James Forrest has come through the whole system. Kieran Tierney was a bit fortunate to get there, to be honest. At the time, he had a bad leg-break and I believe Izzy got injured and Ronny Deila, to be fair, gave him his chance and he kicked on from there. Callum McGregor was also there and he’s an extraordinary player. I spoke to the guys at Celtic and there was a time when they weren’t too sure about Callum either.”

Callum went to Notts County and got his break back at Celtic when Ronnie Deila was appointed the manager. Now one of my biggest fears, every summer, is that a richer club comes in for Callum McGregor. In another world, we may have made the decision that Callum wasn’t good enough for Celtic. Imagine that now? A Celtic without Callum McGregor?

If you believe in alternate universes then there is a world where Robertson and McCarthy stay at Celtic and now play for Ross County or Motherwell. There is a world where Callum McGregor is now playing for Carlisle United in English football’s third tier (because they wanted him whilst he was at Notts County, but John Joyce advised them not to go for him)… But there’s also another world where we let Callum go and he’s now winning European Cups for Liverpool alongside van Dijk and Robertson.

Every player is a gamble.

We’ve already seen Stephen Welsh, Ewan Henderson, Scott Robertson and Karamoko Dembele in the first team. Both Welsh and Henderson went out on loan last season to get the required games and necessary minutes to aid their development. Over the summer we boasted that five young players had signed their first professional contracts. Ben McPherson, Bruno Davis, Joe Morrison, Joseph Murphy and Tsoanelo Letsosa being the latest crop to decide that Celtic is the best place for them to develop. Meanwhile, other youngsters have been tempted from our academy by elite clubs from Manchester and Germany.

We lost Liam Morrison to Bayern Munich, much to the disappointment of thousands who had yet to see him play in the green-and-white hoops. If Liam Morrison goes on to be a world-class defender, it will be because of Munich and not Celtic. That’s hard for a romantic Celtic fan to see and write as I want all our talent to believe that they will make it at Celtic, that we are the best place in the world to develop.

The bottom line is all these young players have reached a critical point where they need games of competitive football, not development football, which is a structure that favours a few and not the many.

Robertson, McCarthy, McGregor, Tierney (I love watching him for Arsenal; I do get a sense of pride that he is one of us) and Forrest’s success is that they had managers who believed in them enough to give them games and time to make mistakes.

If young players don’t get the game time and support, we are always going to be left wondering about what might have been.

Kevin Graham

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