Brendan Rodgers has acclaimed Gary Mackay-Steven as “a fantastic talent” and believes the winger can emerge from the wilderness to become an integral part of his plans at Celtic.
Mackay-Steven made his first appearance under Rodgers as an early second half substitute for the injured James Forrest in Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw against Manchester City in the Champions League at the Etihad Stadium.
As Celtic wait on the results of a scan on the damaged hamstring sustained by Forrest, Mackay-Steven is likely to be rewarded for his eye-catching display against City with a place in the starting line-up in tomorrow night’s Premiership fixture at Partick Thistle.
The 26-year-old had drifted out of the first team picture at Celtic since making his last appearance in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Rangers in April, prompting speculation he could move on in January as Rodgers re-shapes an oversized squad.
But the Celtic manager insists Mackay-Steven, signed from Dundee United almost two years ago, ticks all the boxes of his identikit for players required to bring further success and progress to the Scottish champions.
“There is no question he has a future here,” said Rodgers. “You saw the impact he made against City, I thought he was outstanding.
“This is a boy who has all the tools in terms of how I like my teams to play. He runs forward, he is aggressive, he understands how to press the ball and he’s got a goal in him. He is a fantastic talent.
“Gary has always known where he stood when he wasn’t in the team and that’s part of the management process. You can’t throw boys in the garbage.
“You have players who play regularly and they are happy, but you have the boys on the outside as well. One of the big things as a manager is to recognise and acknowledge that for the guys not playing it’s tough sometimes.
“I think they all know that anytime I can, they will be in, whether it’s a league game, a cup game or a Champions League game.
“Gary has been preparing now for four weeks, after recovering from injury, for his moment and it can come at any time. He has been brilliant in training, but hardly able to play. But he was ready for his moment when it came.”
Rodgers will look to streamline his squad next month, balancing departures with his wish to sign as many as three new players.
“If you are talking about the number of senior professionals we have now, the squad would be too big,” he said. “But if you are playing 50 or 60 games a season, you have to carry a reasonably sized squad.
“I’ve always looked to carry a group of 20, along with your goalkeepers. Within your 20 then you are having possibilities for young players, because they need to have hope. They need to know there is a chance of getting in there. That’s something which will evolve more over the course of the season.”