For Celtic fans, there is nothing better than seeing a young, talented player developing through the youth sides and then establishing 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 to name a few. These graduates 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. During this campaign, I will be taking a monthly check-in to see how beneficial these loan deals are for the Celtic youngsters.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
After the November review, we were sitting at eight senior players out on loan. However, the January transfer window has resulted in two of those being recalled (Ewan Henderson and Stephen Welsh), with a further five (so far) on their way out.
That means a slightly shorter recap for December for me – good news – before an extended one in January – not so good news. The stats below for December have been taken from transfermarkt.com.
There are very few highlights to pick up from this month’s review, so let’s start with the positives. With the exception of Ewan Henderson and Daniel Church, the rest of the players were involved in every game for their team over the month of December, which was good to see. Anthony Ralston continued to look the part, now he is given regular game time at St Johnstone in a loan deal which is clearly working for both parties. And this month’s Loan Player of the Month award goes to Ralston for his part in St Johnstone’s turn around in fortunes. Congratulations Anthony!
Unfortunately, with maybe a few exceptions, this is where the positivity ends. I would understand if you left the article here, but this is honest reporting and it needs to be said. Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Ewan Henderson. A player who showed immense promise coming through the youth system and who was sent out on loan to develop and get some badly needed first-team minutes. Those first-team minutes, though, were few and far between and this loan deal didn’t work out for Henderson or for Celtic.
Since the teenage midfielder joined Ross County back in late August, he was eligible for 14 out of their 16 league games, the other two games being against Celtic. Henderson found himself on the bench and not called to be involved five times, whilst coming off the bench another three, which meant he has only started six times. Six times in 14 games!
Digging deeper, he’s only played 90 minutes twice. In total, Henderson has played around 488 minutes of SPFL football and it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t have had the same opportunities if he had stayed at Celtic.
Reflecting back on Ewan’s brother, Liam, whose loan deals away from Celtic meant that he was not limited to game time and he got experience at a very good level. Initially at Rosenborg, Liam won Norwegian League and League Cup winners’ medals. He then moved back to Scotland and the then extremely competitive Championship with Hibs, who were battling for the title with Rangers and Falkirk.
Henderson’s crowning moment of the 2015/16 season was in the Scottish Cup final against Rangers, where he delivered two pinpoint corners with minutes to go for Hibs to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory.
Following that loan deal, the hype around Liam was quite rightly very high indeed and, if not for the incredible form of the ‘Invincible’ side, Henderson could well have staked a claim for a midfield starting place. Instead, he has carved out a reputation in Italy with Bari, Hellas Verona and Empoli.
Ewan plays slightly further forward than his brother, and his main competition for a place within the Celtic side would be Tom Rogic and Ryan Christie. The latter of those two had a very successful loan spell himself at Aberdeen, which saw him develop both physically and mentally into the player we see flourishing at Celtic Park this season. Henderson’s loan deal hasn’t worked out as well and Celtic, possibly concerned at his lack of first-team action, have recalled the 19-year-old for the second-half of the season.
Another player who started the season with a lot of hype but whose performances tailed off over the month of December was Jack Aitchison. The striker is now without a goal since the start of November, and his loan spell at Forest Green Rovers has started to take a sticky turn. To be fair to Aitchison, he is still the top-scoring striker at the club. However, a return of four goals in 19 games for a player who should be aiming to be far above this level is not something to write home about.
Granted, Aitchison also has three assists, but considering that Celtic have now brought in Patyrk Klimala and look to be in the market for another striker, Aitchison’s lack of impact over the last few months could be severely damaging his chances of a future with Celtic.
Aitchison turns 20 in March and will return back to Celtic as potentially their fifth-choice striker behind Edouard, Griffiths, Klimala and Bayo – perhaps even further down if Celtic’s the links to Lawrence Shankland are to be believed.
That position for Celtic’s youngest ever goal-scorer is certainly worrying and, unless there is a big upturn in form in the second-half of this season, I think the writing could be on the wall.
Compare Aitchison’s loan deal to that of Callum McGregor who spent time at Notts County in League 1 and the difference is staggering. McGregor finished as the top goal-scorer for County with 14 goals that season and that was from midfield. Initially only on a loan until January, McGregor’s performances impressed County to extend his deal until the summer and there were serious considerations at the time around whether they could afford him permanently.
Aitchison’s loan deal looked like it was starting in the same ilk as McGregor’s, and impressive performances through to November had him winning ACSOM’s Loan Player of the Month for September, October and November. However, it can be said that December is the month that separates the challengers from the good-starters and Forest Green’s slide down the table is clearly having an impact on the performances Aitchison is contributing.
Jack will have 12 months left on his Celtic deal when he returns back to the club and, unless things improve, I struggle to see that being extended, which is a massive shame considering the promise he had shown at such a young age with the amount of goals he scored at youth levels.
Another player who will have 12 months left on his deal upon his return is Daniel Church. In previous reviews, we have analysed Church’s battle to nail down the left-back slot from Patrick Slattery at East Fife, and that battle continues to this day. East Fife still find themselves only six points off the top of League One in what can only be described as a league that looks like no one wants to win.
Falkirk and Montrose are the in-form teams but the fact there is only seven points between fifth and first tells you that it’s really anyone’s league. Manager, Darren Young, really looks to rotate that left-back position with Church and Slattery, and that’s not always a bad thing, especially for a young player who hasn’t had a lot of first-team experience.
Similarly to Aitchison, the second-half of this season is where Church really needs to make his mark, not just for the sake of his Celtic career but for the good of his career overall. A good second half of the season could see Church loaned to a Championship or even lower-half Premiership side next season as he continues his development.
The Academy loan system has really had benefits for Church, as he continues to be involved in the development side’s fixtures like the recent victory over Chelsea’s U23s and the Glasgow Cup run that the team are currently undertaking.
Robbie Deas is another player who is benefitting from the development loan system as also featured in the victory against Chelsea U23s recently.
Deas has been able to follow that up by playing every available minute for Alloa over the course of December, as Peter Grant’s side continue to battle for survival at the bottom of the Scottish Championship. An injury to Deas’ defensive partner and Alloa Captain Andy Graham looked to have had a bad impact on the Wasps but an incredible performance away to Dunfermline wrapped up the month of December on a high as Deas and Alloa beat the Pars 3-1.
Deas has really been a standout for an Alloa side who are continuing to try and punch above their weight as a part-time side in a full-time league. Following an extremely impressive loan deal at Cowdenbeath last season, along with his performances this season, there is nothing that suggests that Deas can’t be successful in a higher league. If he is not considered part of the first team squad for season 2020/21 then a loan deal to a Premiership side, similar to Kris Ajer’s spell at Kilmarnock, could be the catalyst to launch his Celtic career.
The Scottish Championship was also the stomping ground for two other Celtic youngsters in Ross Doohan and Stephen Welsh. Regular readers will know that both Doohan and Welsh have been regulars for Ayr United and Morton respectively, since the start of this season and December was no different.
Despite being at opposite ends of the table, there are only six points between Ayr United and Morton, with both sides hitting a bit of a mixed December when it came to results. Both sides managed a victory over Alloa, with Ayr picking up a further point at home to Arbroath whilst Morton’s struggles continued with defeats to Dunfermline, Thistle and Dundee United rounding off their month.
On a performance level, Doohan continued to be the number one for Ayr and, with a spoiler ahead of January’s report, was the hero when Ayr knocked Ross County of out the Scottish Cup! As previously mentioned, I would be surprised if Ayr didn’t attempt to make Doohan’s transfer permanent at the end of this season and the club seems a good fit for Doohan’s development.
Welsh, on the other hand, having picked up vital minutes within a poor Morton side will be looking to make an advancement in his career next season, particularly following his January recall.
David Hopkin’s side started 2020 well with two consecutive victories, which unfortunately coincided with an injury to Welsh, so it will be interesting to see if and when he now features for Neil Lennon’s side.
Having only just turned 20, Welsh should get at least another loan deal to see how his development goes next season before Celtic make a decision on his future.
Two players left to review for December and we’ll start with Anthony Ralston. Ralston seems to be going through a period of career revival with this loan spell at St Johnstone, having played all but 8 minutes of his loan spell thus far, which has coincided with St Johnstone going through the month of December unbeaten!
With four clean sheets out of five games, the Saints turned their form around and December saw Tommy Wright’s men jump from 12th to 8th in the table, which was a massive improvement on the start of the season.
The Saints now look to have a settled back-four, with Ralston really making that right-back position his own. After conceding a lot of goals at the start of the season, having that settled back-four seems to have remedied that and the form of Ralston is a contributing factor in this.
Whether or not Ralston still has a career at Celtic will be down to Neil Lennon, but he is certainly not doing himself any harm with this loan spell which is really boosting his development. It’s very easy to forget that Ralston is only 21 and he could still turn out to be a very good footballer given the opportunities, like those he has been given by Tommy Wright. He’s certainly one to watch for this month and he has very much deserved his Loan Player of the Month for December.
Finally, we reserve a special mention for Connor McBride, the youngster who is certainly making an impact at Stenhousemuir. McBride marked December with his first professional goal in the 3-1 defeat to Cowdenbeath. Still only 18, McBride has a long way to go in his development both at Celtic and on loan at Stenhousemuir, but the game time he is being given by Davie Irons will only help that. Having had minutes in all but one game since his move to Stenny, McBride will be looking to further his involvement in the second-half of the season and try to bag some more goals as Stenny fight for their survival at the bottom end of League Two. Congratulation again to Connor for his first professional goal!
That concludes this month’s wrap-up and, unfortunately, there is a lot more negativity than what you might come to expect from my articles on the loan players. We have to be honest, though, and if a player is not getting the game time, they need to develop their careers elsewhere for the betterment of themselves and for Celtic, who are still paying a heavy chunk of their wages.
The January transfer window is almost closed, but I suspect there will be a few more loan moves for guys looking to get game-time under their belts.
Gutman and Perez have returned back to America to join their teams for pre-season ahead of kick off in February, whilst Jack Hendry’s loan deal to Australia has also been rubber-stamped. Join me again in February where I will review the January performances of the loan players and hopefully we will see more game-time and an improvement in form for Jack Aitchison. Thanks for reading!
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