JASON Denayer is nothing if not a realist. If the young defender, who is poised to make his Celtic debut in Perth tonight, can see the bigger picture as clearly on the pitch as he can off it,then the Scottish champions may just have landed themselves a gem.
A few weeks ago, Denayer was nursing serious ambitions of making a first-team breakthrough at Manchester City this season after being called into manager Manuel Pellegrini’s squad for the pre-season trips to Scotland and the USA.
But although he impressed during that schedule, which included games against Dundee and Hearts, the Belgian under-21 international was soon forced to accept that his long-term development prospects would be better served by a temporary move elsewhere.
“It was not the plan at the beginning of the season for me to join another club on loan,” said the softly spoken and affable Denayer. “I wanted to become part of the Manchester City first team.
“But City have now signed the French defender Eliaquim Mangala from Porto for £32 million and when a club spends that kind of money, they cannot put him on the bench. Martin Demichelis, who has just played in the World Cup final for Argentina, is also there and needs to play.
“It’s the same for Vincent Kompany, the captain, so it was going to be difficult for me to get a game in that defence.
“So when this opportunity came up, I thought it would be better to come to Celtic on loan.
“It’s a big club everyone knows and there is still the chance to play in the Champions League this season. Maybe Celtic could get drawn against Manchester City in the group stage – I’d like that.”
Denayer has inevitably been compared to his compatriot Kompany, the highly regarded Belgian national team captain, and the 19-year-old is happy to embrace those expectations.
“That’s okay for me, because Vincent is a great player,” added Denayer.
“When people compare me with him, it’s because they are hoping for something good from me. It gives me strength to go further. It maybe adds pressure, but pressure is part of football.
“You can feel pressure and think about how difficult it makes things, or you can feel pressure and think, ‘Okay, I’m going to work and be like Vincent’. He has helped me a lot. One of the things he tried to teach me is how to become more vocal and communicate better.
“He tells me to express myself, not just as a player but also speak out more on the pitch. He tells me to become a leader. Being loud is something I don’t find easy.
“At the start, it was very difficult for me because I’m not someone who shouts a lot.”
Asked to describe himself as a player, Denayer says: “I am fast, strong and I try to play football the right way. I don’t just kick the ball away.”
Another significant influence on his fledgling career has been Patrick Vieira, the manager of City’s elite development squad. The former Arsenal and France midfielder played a key role in persuading Denayer to agree to the season-long loan at Celtic.
“Patrick said it would be a good choice for me,” added Denayer. “He said I would gain a lot and it would help me take another step forward.
“He has been such a big influence on me. He was such a big player and he knows everything about football. Whenever he talks to me and gives me advice, he is right.
“That’s all the time, so I listen to him. I spoke to him about coming to Celtic and he said it would be a great experience for me.
“That’s also what my friends and family said to me. Everyone said it was a great club – that everyone likes Celtic.
“I know it’s not just a big club in Scotland but also in Europe too. There are lots of people who watch Celtic.
“I saw the Champions League game against Barcelona, of course. The atmosphere looked amazing that night so I know Celtic is a big club. They have a history and great fans.”
In addition to likely debuts for Denayer and goalkeeper Craig Gordon tonight, it will also be Ronny Deila’s first domestic fixture as Celtic manager after experiencing bizarrely mixed fortunes in the Champions League qualifiers so far.
“It’s going to be very good to come into the league and know everything now,” said Deila. “I’ve been watching a lot of games now, I was in Aberdeen for their game against Dundee United on Sunday.
“I’m looking forward to meeting St Johnstone and getting started in the league. It’s important now to get good matches every week so we can start progressing.”