Interview: Celtic centre-half Efe Ambrose
NIGERIAN defender signed from obscure club in Israel is proving a real find
VICTOR Wanyama will never command the transfer fee that his manager has placed upon him, a whopping £25million but, if there are any certainties in this football life, then one of them is that the improbably mature and hugely talented midfielder will head to a bigger club pretty soon. Not for £25m, but for many multiples of what Celtic paid for him in the first place. This is one of the most impressive aspects of the Neil Lennon reign, the arrival of unheralded players who very quickly turn into stars. Wanyama is the brightest but he’s not alone in the firmament.
Indeed, if Wanyama was to go, it looks like his replacement is already in place. When Efe Ambrose fetched up at Celtic Park from Ashdod in Israel, there was a barely concealed excitement in Lennon’s voice. He spoke about watching the centre-half and being blown away by his athleticism. On Friday, in the wake of Ambrose’s excellence at the Nou Camp, Lennon went again.
“He’s a hungry boy,” he said of the Nigerian. “He’s come from humble surroundings and what we saw when we were looking at him, well, we thought he is a no-brainer. He is very mature for his age . He is playing brilliantly. We are delighted with him. He fits the Wanyama type in that he can play both positions comfortably. We saw him play in both positions. He looked like Yaya Toure at times, the way he would just brush past people, the athleticism, pace and quality on the ball.”
This is how rapid Ambrose’s rise has been. He was signed on the last day of the transfer window and was introduced to the media and the supporters on the day Celtic twice lost a lead in an SPL game against Hibs. Ambrose was a Google job at the time. Search engines were utilised to find out the details of his life, a life and career nobody knew anything about. At the top table he spoke of how God had blessed him with this move but all the attention that day was on the guy sitting next to him, another new recruit, Miku.
The Venezuelan was the one with the pedigree and the track record as a goalscorer against La Liga’s powerhouses. As we spoke to Miku, Ambrose slipped away quietly. How things have changed. Last week, the people who compile UEFA’s Champions League team of the week ignored some world renowned names and put Ambrose in their selection. “It was amazing as I never expected it,” said the defender on Friday. “It brought me great joy but I believe the eleven Celtic players from Tuesday deserved to be in that team. We are all players of the week.”
Lennon recalls the first time he saw Ambrose play. “He was playing for Ashdod. I can’t remember the opposition but his agent – he was Beram Kayal’s agent initially – brought him to our attention. So we watched the footage of him, then we watched the game. Myself and Johan said: ‘Look, we have got to sign this guy.’ For 800,000 euros or a million or whatever it is we felt it would be a snip and his wages are well within our budget as well so we feel like we have won a watch with him. He was linked with Man City believe it or not. I don’t know if he actually went training with them. There were a few other clubs involved.”
Ambrose wasn’t getting involved in that last week when he spoke, wasn’t interested in talking about what might have been at City. He was talking about Barcelona and a conversation he had with Alex Song in the aftermath. “I spoke to Alex afterwards and it was great. He said we gave Barcelona a good fight and we had a great team. At the start, Barça never thought we would give them a fight but when I spoke to Alex at the end he said we had a great team and that he never believed we could give them that kind of challenge.
“He said our team was good and that we played very well. He told me we should keep it up. It was a good performance and the biggest thing for me was that we lived up to the standard of the game. That was important.”
Some players take a while to adapt to life at Celtic. Some are awed by the intensity of their new lives and have to ease their way into it. Ambrose is not one of those guys. His performance against Barcelona was outstanding, a model of concentration and discipline and power, assets that Lennon believes would be as useful in midfield as they are currently at the heart of his defence.
“One of the reasons the manager brought me in was because I can play in different positions,” said Ambrose. “I’m ready to give my best wherever he puts me – defence or midfield. I will give my all.” There is a period coming up when he won’t be around, though. The Africa Cup of Nations is in January and Ambrose will be away with Nigeria. “I believe from now until then we are going to win every game that comes by,” he said of Celtic, predicting for a second time that they will beat Barcelona in the return leg at Parkhead. “That will make it a bit easier for me to go and join my nation. I will be away for about three weeks if we go all the way to the final, and I believe we will do that.”
The boy’s not lacking in confidence.
In the meantime, though, there is the SPL and, this week, a League Cup tie with St Johnstone, before yesterday’s loss to Kilmarnock, the only team bar Barcelona to have beaten Celtic this season. For Lennon, this next while is all about the domestic and not the European. “We have been to two finals [and lost them both] and I would like to go again. I know St Johnstone are, along with ourselves, probably the form team in Scotland at the minute. We will need a better performance than we turned in at McDiarmid Park. We want to progress so I will put a strong team out. I want to get through to the semi-final, I want to get to the final then hopefully go one better. It will be a pretty tough game. They are playing with great spirit, great team ethic and a lot of confidence. They are dangerous. Gregory [Tade] and [Nigel] Hasselbaink are doing very well, backed up by [Rowan] Vine. They have good players in forward areas.”
It is, of course, the clash of two old mates. Lennon versus Steve Lomas. Northern Ireland versus Northern Ireland. “He was under a bit of pressure obviously, earlier in the season. They had gone through the back of last season losing games and hadn’t started this season well. I remember speaking to him at the start of the season and he felt they wouldn’t get off to a good start looking at the games they had but obviously beating us they got a great lift and have never looked back.”
Neither, you have to say, have Celtic.
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