THE task detailed to Amido Balde yesterday was to launch Celtic’s new golden change strip, but the former Portugal Under-21 striker also clothed comments in different hues.
In his home press the other day, the £1.5 million summer capture from Vitoria Guimaraes, told how Fraser Forster had asked him about Benfica after being linked with them, which brought his response that the Englishman would do well at a big club like Celtic. Cue this exchange being adorned in subsequent reporting with the thread becoming Balde telling Forster that any proposed £6m deal – the original report had the figure at £3.7m, incidentally – would be a good move and pitch him up at a bigger club.
Balde, speaking through a translator, offered a far more innocent explanation to the conversation the pair had. “Celtic are one of the top clubs in Europe,” the forward said. “I think Fraser is very happy here and likes it here so in my opinion, I would suggest that he stay here. [Our talk] was just banter between team-mates, asking what the Portuguese league is like and what happens there. But it was just chat; it was nothing.”
Making much from little has been something of a preoccupation for those of us in the sports writing trade when it comes to Balde’s early appearances for the Scottish champions. A pre-season in which he appeared to offer little more than a clumsy touch, and which was followed by his being overlook for important Champions League qualifying action, led to many of us making rash, and harsh, judgments on a player anyone could be forgiven for thinking was nicknamed “raw”, so often does his manager Neil Lennon use the term in connection with him.
Perceptions of him have been, at least, temporarily altered following his raw and raved-about showing in a Dublin friendly against Liverpool last Saturday, which brought a deftly constructed first goal for his new club. BT Vision Sports co-commentator Michael Owen bigged-up Balde for his bullying of the Liverpool backline, as did Gary Gillespie and Steve McManaman. The striker knows that one non-competitive goal does not a career make, though.
“It was just one game against Liverpool,” he said. “I am here to evolve as a footballer. That game went well and I will always strive to show my worth but I am very happy here at Celtic and that game especially I really enjoyed when I scored and feeling the warmth that you get from the fans and the happiness that you bring to them. [That experience has made me feel] very positive. It’s always very good when strikers score. That’s my job and I was very happy at doing that. I vibrate with the warmth that I feel from the supporters.”
Balde’s head had previously been spinning with the transition he has had to deal with since swapping life on the Iberian Peninsula for the Clyde. “In truth it has been a bit difficult, just small things,” he said. “But when there is ambition, you have to overcome problems. The language, the training regime, the new environment, the new colleagues, a different way of playing [all have been challenges]. It’s much different to Vitoria Guimaraes. Celtic are a bigger club, in European terms, and you feel that burden of having come to a bigger team where there is a bigger responsibility for me.”
In the area of communication, Balde says he is “making good progress”. “My team-mates can understand already what I want to say,” he said, in Portuguese. “And the manager told me I’ve learned English very fast. I’m taking English classes after training and I’m making fast progress.”
His on-field assimilation may take longer. Celtic’s need to sign a striker in the wake of Gary Hooper’s departure has been presented as a must by Lennon, yesterday linked with a move for Schalke’s Finnish forward Teemu Pukki as it appears unlikely they will meet Heerenveen’s £4.5m asking price for top target Alfred Finnbogason. Balde’s physicality and target man properties mark him out as a different option for Lennon, but he might also be little deployed in the coming months. “I am here to give my very best but that will all depend on the manager [if I replace Hooper], Balde said. “I follow Neil Lennon’s instructions to the letter. But I am not Gary Hooper. We have different football styles. But ultimately it is all about scoring goals. I am just trying to work hard and develop my game. And then it will depend on the manager if I play.”
When it comes to pay, meanwhile, Balde has appeared to be in dispute with his former agent Paulo Rodrigues. The representative this week lodged a breach of contract compensation claim with Fifa for almost £900,000, having being jettisoned by the player shortly ahead of his move to Celtic but Balde said: “I’ve only read about it, I don’t know anything about it.”