Kieran Tierney has been in imperious form once again for Celtic, his goal against Kilmarnock in the Betfred Cup going viral as he captained his side. He is the real deal, writes Joel Sked
“The best player Scotland has produced since...”
BBC Sportsound presenter Richard Gordon had to pause before finishing his own sentence on Tuesday evening. The studio guests were equally hesitant. A moment later Gordon came back to his original point, dropping in the names of Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish - Scottish totems who excelled on the Scottish, English and European stage.
That is how highly regarded Kieran Tierney is. That is how good Kieran Tierney is. The world’s best full-back aged 21 or under.
Which in itself poses the question of how much the player is worth, considering the fees paid for the likes of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy - but also his Scotland team-mate Andy Robertson.
For those still unaware of Celtic’s supremely gifted left-back, a goal he netted against Kilmarnock in the Betfred Cup offered a snapshot as it went viral. Although it wasn’t so much netted, as thundered. Picking up the ball in the centre circle he ventured forward a few yards. With a deep and compact defence between him and goal he was afforded the space to hit it.
Hit it he did. Only Alan Partridge’s commentary could do it justice.
While many rightly marvelled at the goal itself, there were other snippets from Celtic’s comfortable 5-0 win of the player’s talent and potential. The 20-year-old was chosen to captain a much-changed side, but still one which included more experienced individuals in Craig Gordon, Stuart Armstrong and Leigh Griffiths.
Brendan Rodgers already sees Tierney as a leader, and he became the club’s youngest skipper for a competitive game in living memory.
The Celtic manager told the BBC: “He’s a boy who doesn’t do daft things, he’s very focused. He doesn’t drink, he’s very concentrated on in his life as a footballer, he rests, he recovers and he doesn’t spend his time doing stupid things, he’s very professional.
“He trains to the max every single day, he throws his life into being a footballer and gets his rewards for it.”
Tierney led a back four with an average age of 19 from the unfamiliar position of centre-back.
“Wherever you ask him to play he plays it to a high level,” Rodgers added. “Tactically he’s improving all the time and he’s an absolute joy to work with.”
In his burgeoning career, one which started with nine minutes at Dens Park in Dundee in April 2015, Tierney has played left-back, wing-back and centre-back for Celtic, as well as right-back and left of a back three for Scotland. It is worth re-emphasising that he only turned 20 in June.
Yet he’s played 81 times for Celtic, four times for Scotland - bypassing the under-21s - went up against Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling, bounced back from a ruptured cruciate ligament injury, and won successive young player of the year awards. From the beginning of 2016, despite being just 18, he made himself ‘undroppable’ as he usurped Scotland’s 2010/2011 player of the year and Honduran international Emilio Izaguirre.
It is common for a young player’s emergence to be tempered at some stage by being taken out of the heat of the first-team, rested, rejuvenated and then released once more. Not Tierney. The left-back has been one of Celtic’s most consistent players over the past two seasons, and has so far shown that season three will be heading the same way.
When the club were hit with a malaise as Ronny Deila’s reign petered out in 2016, it was Tierney who emerged as a driving force, showing up team-mates with his willingness, enthusiasm and professionalism. Tierney has only improved with further games and a greater standard of coaching under Brendan Rodgers; afforded greater freedom to drive forward from an advanced left-back position, playing as an auxiliary winger.
He is a constant attacking threat, having developed a good rapport with Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong. He is not a sprinter but a powerful runner which allows him to beat full-backs with ease, while possessing a crossing ability and composure wingers all over the world would envy.
Defensively he has improved tactically and physically. But it has been a minor rather than drastic change. He is a diamond that requires little polishing, a talent that was dazzling from the outset.
He may have looked like a kid, perhaps he still does, but he plays like a rugged defender of old, mixed with the exuberance of a prototype full-back. He uses his body so well, times the tackle to perfection, going to ground when necessary, and is rarely, if ever, beaten by a winger.
I recently wrote about the rise of Andy Robertson and the bargain Liverpool have secured in his signing. But Tierney is a better, more rounded player. They do share many similarities. Their ability to be a one-man wing, but more crucially, their strongest attribute is their mentality. The antithesis of the stereotypical modern-day footballer.
It is highly unlikely Tierney would, at any point, go to the media the way Danny Rose did this week to question his club’s ambition and effectively hand in a transfer request.
It may be an apocryphal tale, but when he signed a boot deal it was said Tierney requested that he only be made to wear black boots. It may be untrue and completely unfounded but it is believable.
When consigned to the sidelines, Tierney spoke of the positives of being able to go to Celtic games as a fan, alongside his friends, and the fans who pay homage to him every week. He further endeared himself to those fans at the Scottish Cup final in May.
Removed from the field after a facial injury, he went to hospital before running back into Hampden Park to lift the cup.
He takes that passion on to the field, like he is taking part in his own dream. Playing for his boyhood club and enjoying every second of it. He is a coach’s dream. A coach like Mauricio Pochettino, who may be on the look out for a new left-back given the Rose debacle.
But how much will Tierney fetch? The transfer market is skewed, and Scottish players, particularly those playing in Scotland, are generally undervalued. It makes it hard to put a realistic price-tag on him. However, with the player settled at his boyhood club - a club that is dominating the domestic scene - there is little pressure to sell. But if and when they do, the fee will surpass anything received by a Scottish club.
And for the buying club, they will be receiving the real deal in return.