The Loan Bhoys with A Celtic State of Mind – Whatever happened to Anthony Ralston?

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, we will be taking a monthly check-in to see how beneficial these loans deals are for the Celtic youngsters.
 
Since the October review, four loan spells have come to an end with Conor Hazard, Manny Perez, Andrew Gutman and Kundai Benyu all returning to Paradise and resuming training at Lennoxtown. Gutman and Perez will soon return back to the US for the 2020 season and, with the January transfer window fast approaching, it will be interesting to see who else from the fringes of the first-team, and also from the development squad, take the leap and try to make a name for themselves outside of Lennoxtown.

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Special mention to Dave McKay from the Celtic under-19s team who is spending the season at Lowland League side BSC Glasgow. Dave was part of the BSC side who knocked East Fife out of the Scottish Cup in the third round, putting the Glasgow side into the fourth round of the Scottish Cup for the first time in their history. Ironically, Daniel Church was not involved in the tie for East Fife and his November is something we will touch on shortly.

Initial reactions to the stats for November are simple, it’s great to see that all the players, with the exception of Daniel Church, have managed to play at least a part in each of their loan club’s games in November. Stephen Welsh, Anthony Ralston, Conor Hazard and Robbie Deas played in every single minute, so congratulations to them. Even seeing someone like under-19s player Connor McBride getting game time at Stenhousemuir is a credit to the player, as manager Davie Irons has put his faith in him at such a young age.


 
In previous reviews, ‘Loan Player of the Month’ has gone to Jack Aitchison for his spell at Forest Green Rovers, however, it looks like it could be closer in November with Conor Hazard’s emergency loan spell at Dundee receiving plaudits from many of the Dens Park faithful. Robbie Deas’ development at Alloa, meanwhile, continues to impress despite his team’s position in the table. However, with a goal and assist in his six appearances, alongside a shift in position, Aitchison lifts the ‘Loan Player of the Month’ award for the third successive month.
 
It is down in Gloucestershire that we will start this month’s individual reviews by looking at the performances of Aitchison. As previously mentioned, Rovers’ manager Mark Cooper has been playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to that deployed by Lennon, and Jack has found himself in the Ryan Christie role behind main striker, Matthew Stevens. It is an unfamiliar position for Aitchison, who has traditionally found himself as the central focal point of attack and is undoubtedly a goal-scorer, however, it looks like this move is really starting to bring forward his development into the senior game. Reflecting back on their victory over Cheltenham on 2 November 2019, the game in which Aitchison scored his only goal this month, Total Football Analysis writer Daryl Gouilard highlighted the key roles that Aitchison had in the victory:
 
“Speaking of Aitchison, it is hard to argue that the Celtic loanee had a big influence in Forest Green’s style of play during the match… he was the focal point of most passes during their attacking transition process and formed many links with the players surrounding him.
 
“In the role of a roaming playmaker, his responsibility was to receive passes and then distribute it forward. Off the ball, he would position himself in pockets of space but also came near the ball-carrier to offer to pick up the ball. Not the type of player who likes to dribble, Aitchison let his passes do the talking with 25 out of 31 passes completed and registered one second assist.”
 
Impressive stats for a player playing in an unfamiliar role. Forest Green have been on a difficult run of form since this match, a combination of bad luck and injuries are contributing factors, but it continues to be Aitchison who is shaping up to be one of their players of the season should this run of form continue.
 
Moving back across the sanctuary of the Scottish border and into the Championship, we find four of the loan Bhoys, which in December’s review will come down to three. So, let’s take a look at the player who will come off the report on our next edition, Conor Hazard. Hazard joined Dundee on an emergency loan after normal number 1 Jack Hamilton was struck down with appendicitis. Hazard performed extremely well in his five games during the loan spell at the Dees picking up three victories in five games for a struggling side.

In November, Hazard played three games, picking up a victory against struggling Morton (with Stephen Welsh playing for the Ton) whilst losing the Dundee Derby and also a defeat to Inverness. Hazard, however, wasn’t short of plaudits for his time on loan and I would expect teams to come in during the January transfer window to take a punt on the Irishman. With Bain, Gordon and Forster all ahead of him, Hazard will be looking for that loan spell that draws attention to him and launches him into Neil Lennon’s thoughts for next season. Back now at Lennoxtown, under the guidance of Stephen Woods, Hazard will be eager for his chance to impress, and with Woods coaching him, he will only get better.
 
Staying in the Championship, Greenock Morton have had an extremely poor season so far. Under the guidance of local favourite David Hopkins, it wasn’t expected that the team would be pushing for promotion to the Premiership, but it also wasn’t expected that they would be fighting for survival from the Championship! Stephen Welsh has played almost every minute for the Greenock side this season and his performances have generally been a shining light in what has been a poor season. Starting off at right-back, Welsh has been moved into centre-back and seems to have transitioned seamlessly.
 
Despite not getting great results, the experience of senior football will do Welsh the world of good. The problem for both Welsh and Morton seems to be that the defence is actually lacking an experienced leader figure. Over the last few seasons, Morton have been able to call upon Tam O’Ware, Lee Kilday and even Gavin Gunning at times, players who can help get a young player through the game. However, with a back four with an average age of 22, Morton seem to be lacking an experienced head to help them grind out results. At 19, Welsh starting every game at a Championship level shows that he has the ability to develop further. For me, though, I feel like that might need to be at a higher level than Morton.

Another Celtic goalkeeper in the Championship is Ross Doohan. November was an interesting month for Ayr United, in total they only had two fixtures and Doohan was in goals for both. A victory against Partick Thistle and a defeat to Queen of the South completed the topsy-turvy month for the Ayr side. Doohan has now made over 65 appearances for Ayr and has cemented his place as the number 1 goalkeeper there. When he returns to Celtic in the summer, Doohan will have two years left on his deal, but he could also find himself as fifth choice goalkeeper. At 21, I don’t expect that would be a position the Scotsman would want to find himself in and a move down the coast to Ayr may be beneficial for both parties. Should Ayr continue on their push towards promotion, then I could see Doohan being one of the first players they attempt to sign up for the 2020/21 season.
 
Before we go into the Scottish Premiership, a brief mention for Daniel Church on loan at East Fife. Last month, I had mentioned that he had looked to seal the left-back slot as his own by finally dislodging Patrick Slattery, however, East Fife Manager Jim Duffy looks to have put his faith back in Slattery following the 1-0 defeat to Montrose. With little to talk about in his performances for November, we can only hope that he works himself back into the first-team for the month of December and try to get more experience under his belt.

Finally, we arrive in the Scottish Premiership and, firstly, we will head far north to Dingwall and check in on Ewan Henderson. In October, Henderson was limited to 64 minutes of football and, thankfully for him, his fortunes changed quicker than the weather has over the last month. Henderson started and created a few chances in the matches against Aberdeen and St Mirren but, unfortunately, found himself on the wrong side of the result in both matches.
 
This is an extremely important season for Henderson, as he continues his development into senior football and questions could be asked as to whether his development would have been better suited at Celtic Park as opposed to Dingwall. Having only started half of the games in which he has played this season and also being left on the bench for the visits of St Johnstone, Rangers and Hibs, it must be a frustrating period for the young player. Looking at the most recent European match for Celtic, where Scott Robertson shone in what was otherwise a very flat performance, Henderson would have, at least in my mind, been a stick on for the squad for that game. He may have even appeared more this month, as Celtic go into a difficult December period where they play twice a week until the winter break.
 
That being said, Ross County themselves also have a lot of games in December and, with a much smaller squad than most of the others in the league, it is a time for Henderson to solidify his place in the team and start to show the promise that he has done in his sparing appearances for Celtic over the last two seasons. It will be interesting to reflect back upon Henderson’s development for December and I really hope he gets the game time he needs to show his potential.
 
Also in the Scottish Premiership, Anthony Ralston has certainly seemed to settle in nicely in Perth, playing all but eight minutes of St Johnstone’s league matches since his loan move up the M80/M9. St Johnstone only picked up the one point in the month of November, however that was with nine men against, at that point, third-placed Aberdeen. Ralston’s defensive performance helped the Saints grind out an important point as they continue to try and drive their way up the table, following an extremely poor start.  
 
Ralston also managed to get his first assist of the season, setting up Stevie May’s consolation goal in the 4-1 home defeat to Hibs. As previously mentioned, Ralston’s time at Celtic might be coming towards an end as he finds himself currently fourth choice for the right-back position but, if he continues to get game time under his belt and continue putting in solid performances, even in a poor squad, he may get the chance for one last opportunity to prove his worth at Celtic. It’s important to remember that Ralston has only played just over 50 competitive games, most of those as a substitute, and at various levels. Given the opportunity to have a run in the side, he may develop into a useful squad player for Celtic going forward.
 
Well, that was November. As previously mentioned, it is encouraging to see that most of the Bhoys are getting regular minutes, week-in week-out for their loan sides, with the slight exception of Daniel Church. December will most likely be the last month that this group of players will be at this current number. With the January transfer window opening, we should expect to see others joining this list, which is great for them, but not so much for me as I continue tracking their development throughout the season to bring it back to the ACSOM readers.

Colin Watt

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