There was a Twitter thread the other day about the players with the biggest potential currently signed up with Celtic. What was most heartening was the number of different names being mentioned. Calum McGregor, Ewan Henderson, Karamoko Dembele, Mikey Johnston and Kieran Tierney. But in amongst those names that have come through from our youth ranks, was a special mention for our towering Norwegian defender, Kristoffer Ajer.
The final months of Ronny Deila’s tenure as manager of Celtic saw a short burst of activity in the January transfer window. However, his final piece of business was not wrapped up until the end of February when he dipped into the marketplace back in his homeland to seek out an up-and-coming talent.
Ajer was already in his second full season with IK Start in Norway and was well on his way to a half-century of appearances when Celtic signed the then 17-year-old. Capped at international levels from Under-16 and now a full international, he certainly ticks all the boxes within Celtic’s scouting network that looks to identify young players who can be nurtured and developed whilst gaining experience on the field of play.
Maintaining the model that has served the club so well in the past, Celtic were able to agree a deal that would benefit both the club and player in equal measures. He was offered a contract after a short trial and the Norwegian midfielder returned home before making the move to Glasgow in the summer.
Three years on and Ajer has developed into an integral part of the Celtic defence. His first season, spent largely on loan with Kilmarnock, allowed him to adapt to life in his adopted home, adjust to the Scottish game and even make the move from his traditional central midfield role to centre-back.
In his second season with Celtic, Ajer earned his place as a regular in the match-day squad, making a number of appearances from the bench. However, in December 2017, with Rodgers unable to find a suitable partner for Dedryck Boyata, he turned to the Norwegian to help provide some stability. In a frustrating 0-0 draw at home against our city rivals, Ajer was one of the few outfield players who performed well on the day, making a number of perfectly timed last-ditch tackles to keep the scores level.
This was the game where Ajer made the transition from a prospect to first-team regular. After some nervous moments in the opening exchanges, he settled into a strong match showing his ability to read the game and timing in the tackle. We also saw his instincts as a midfielder return as he moved out from his defensive position to try to impose our midfield in the match.
Additional cover at centre-back would arrive in the January, in form of Jack Hendry and Marvin Compper, but it was Ajer who cemented his place in the Celtic team, going on to make over 25 appearances before the end of the season and in the process picking up league and Scottish Cup winners’ medals to go along with the League Cup medal won from the bench earlier in the season.
Signed up on a new four-year deal in May 2018, it will be good to continue to watch Ajer to grow in stature as a Celtic player. Where others in the central defensive role have not been available when needed most, Ajer has always given everything on and off the pitch for the team. The arrival of Benkovic on loan hasn’t derailed the 6’ 5” tackler’s progress, tallying up another 25+ appearances so far this season. If anything, it has given extra focus to maintain the high standards he has already set himself.
With further changes expected in defence this summer, Ajer should be in prime position to claim the role at centre-back and with the right experience beside him it can only further his development. There is still a lot to come from the 20-year-old, and I hope the level-headed Norwegian will be seen the green-and-white of Celtic for a few more years yet.
Martin DonaldsonListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast