VIRGIL van Dijk has been warned that his progress as a top class central defender could be hindered if he leaves Celtic too soon.
The highly-regarded Dutch player has been consistently linked with a move to the English Premier League where Arsenal, Tottenham, Southampton and Crystal Palace are among the clubs believed to be weighing up a summer bid for the 23-year-old.
Van Dijk further fuelled the speculation himself earlier this week when, in a Dutch media interview, he said he would “definitely consider” a transfer if the opportunity arose. But Celtic first-team coach John Kennedy has urged Van Dijk, who is under contract with the Scottish champions until 2017, to be patient and remain at the club for another tilt at Champions League football next season.
Kennedy, a former Celtic and Scotland central defender, believes that Van Dijk has unlimited potential in the game which may not be fulfilled if he rushes into a move south of the Border.
“Yes, Virgil can play at the very top,” said Kennedy. “But it comes down to the phrase ‘one day’. Players sometimes get their head turned too quickly and it stalls their development.
“He’s in a good place right now and we want to compete in the Champions League next year. For him to have that, and be at a club where him and his family are happy, is an important factor.
“He will be a big player for us next season if we can make the Champions League. After that, we can look at it. Virgil, with his skill and what he potentially has, can play for any team in the world.
“Listen, it’s the way it is that people look ahead and speculate. When I was a player, it was the same. That’s what people talk about and what makes news in this game.
“From the perspective of being behind the scenes as coaches, we have to focus more short term. We have a long-term plan but we can’t get too carried away.
“Even from Virgil’s perspective, people talk about him being able to play at the very top level. But he can’t just come in every day thinking he will be at the top level. He has to have it as an end goal but he has to remember what he has to do and the steps it takes to get there.
“This year, he has realised that to be a top player he needs to work on certain things.
“From day one till now, he has improved a hell of a lot. He was a very good player and has taken it up a level again. But it’s important he is in a place where he can keep doing that until the point comes where he takes that big step. He has more than enough ability to go and do that.”
Celtic will definitely lose one half of their current central defensive partnership this summer when on-loan Belgian international Jason Denayer returns to his parent club Manchester City.
“That’s the way of football,” added Kennedy. “Jason will go back to City initially and we’ll see how that develops. He and Virgil have been great together and developed a great partnership. But as always happens in football, players come and go. Virgil is still our player and we’re happy we have him on another two years of his contract.
“We don’t need to sell him or move him on. If Jason moves on, then fine. We have players here needing an opportunity or we can choose to replace him.
“But Virgil is not one we are looking actively to replace. While we can’t stop speculation, he’s happy right now. I think if he reflects on his season, he’s improved a lot as a player. He can improve further.”
Hearts captain Danny Wilson, who has taken up an exit clause in his contract at Tynecastle, is among the central defenders who have been linked with a potential move to Celtic.
The acquisitions of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven in the last transfer window underlined Celtic’s willingness to look to Scottish talent in the first instance before scouring the market in the rest of the world.
“It helps with the settling-in period when you sign Scottish players,” observed Kennedy. “Gary and Stuart came straight in and know some of the boys already. Their culture has not changed.
“Before you know it, they are up and running and have been two terrific signings for us. That makes sure we are more aware and do more homework on what he have here in Scotland. First and foremost, that should be our first stop.”