Jozo Simunovic came so close to being the latest in a series of big-money transfers from abroad who failed to live up to the hype at Celtic Park.
Signed for a fee rumoured to be in excess of £5 million from Dinamo Zagreb at the end of last summer’s transfer window, the young Croatian played only 17 times for his new club before injury put paid to his maiden campaign with the Scottish champions.
Initially quoted to be a six-week lay-off, Simunovic would not return for the remainder of the 2015/16 season as his knee injury eventually required surgery. In his absence, Celtic wrapped up the Ladbrokes Premiership title in the final days of the Ronny Deila era.
Though Brendan Rodgers promised the Celtic first-team players a fresh start when he arrived, which brought rapid improvement in the form of Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest, it seemed Simunovic was going to miss out on this new chapter as the club appeared all but ready to cut their losses when they accepted a £3m offer from Torino.
The deal was all set to go ahead when the Italian side reportedly pulled out at the last minute, fuelling speculation that Celtic had a crocked asset on their hands. However, the player was quick to dispel the rumours, taking to Twitter to point the finger of blame solely in the direction of Torino, whom he said shifted the goalposts at the last second with regards to the transfer fee.
Well, for Simunovic and Celtic, it’s just as well they did. Since then, the 22-year-old has established himself in the starting XI alongside Erik Sviatchenko, ahead of veteran stopper Kolo Toure. He’s heavily contributed to Celtic going eight domestic games without conceding a goal, while he also made his Champions League debut against Barcelona in the recent 2-0 defeat at Parkhead. Though the hosts lost the match, Simunovic was one of the better performers and looked comfortable at the elite level.
The pinnacle, however, would have been Sunday’s Betfred Cup final, where Celtic swept aside Aberdeen for their first trophy of the season. After being forced into the role of spectator for last season’s title celebrations, this was the first time the defender has been able to savour the joy of helping Celtic lift a major trophy, and it’s a feeling he’s desperate to repeat. “To win this trophy means a lot to me after everything that has happened over the last year. But look, I’m a professional footballer and injuries happen. That’s normal. I accepted that and I have worked hard to improve,” reflected Simunovic.
“The manager is getting a lot out of me but I also believe I can get better every day. It’s good that he has said some positive things about me. That means a lot. I can’t think about that though, I just need to keep working hard every day.
“This year has been up and down for me. It has been turbulent. But I just accept that. It was part of my football career.”
For Simunovic, the near-move to Torino is firmly in the past as he looks to the future with the Ladbrokes Premiership leaders.
“I feel at home now, with the fans and everybody at the club,” added the defender. “They have supported me. There is a lot of positive energy between the fans and the players and that’s important. If I had gone to Torino and watched Celtic win this cup, I would have been sad to miss it. But Torino is over for me now. I just look to the future with Celtic.”
Meanwhile, Craig Gordon, pictured, will enjoy the afterglow of Celtic’s Betfred Cup final success and let others talk of a possible domestic treble.
The Parkhead side are favourites to make it six Premiership titles in a row and on Monday night were drawn away to Albion Rovers or Queen of the South in the fourth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup. While a clean sweep of Scottish honours is more than a possibility this season, the goalkeeper refused to speculate.
“We have a few league games coming up now that we need to concentrate on,” Gordon said.
“The second cup competition hasn’t even started. So we will concentrate on the league for the next few weeks and we will keep putting points on the board and making it difficult for people to catch us
“It’s a long way away. Everybody else will be starting to talk about that but we have a lot of games between now and the end of December, so that’s the next thing to concentrate on.”