Celtic perseverance, Premiership interest, key loan move - how Stephen Welsh grasped his chance

In what has been a largely catastrophic season for Celtic, Stephen Welsh’s emergence can be pulled out of the wreckage.

Stephen Welsh has emerged as a first-team regular.

He may not have been a name of the lips of many at the beginning of the campaign, and quite far down the centre-half pecking order, but in the here and now, Welsh is one of the first names on the team-sheet and an important player in Celtic’s attempt to win the Scottish Cup.

The 21-year-old is extremely likely to partner Kris Ajer in defence on Sunday when Celtic travel across Glasgow to face Rangers in the fourth round. Buoyed by strong performances at the heart of the backline, and fresh from penning a new contract on Tuesday that keeps him at the club until the summer of 2025, he will be tasked with keeping Alfredo Morelos and co quiet.

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A boyhood Celtic fan, Welsh’s rise through the ranks is a tale of perseverance. He joined the club more than a decade ago and stood out for his defensive capabilities, leadership qualities and composure in possession. Always a centre-half in either a three or four, Welsh is quiet and conscientious off the pitch but transformed into a figurehead on the field of play. Ask any academy staff which player current youngsters should base themselves on and Welsh would be the answer.

Welsh made his senior debut last year under Neil Lennon against Hamilton in February. He had been steeled for first-team action by a loan spell earlier in the 2019/20 campaign at Morton, where David Hopkin leaned heavily on him. He played 18 games at Cappielow before his return to Celtic Park and while the style of play did not suit him, being involved with seasoned pros was invaluable.

The lockdown, in an odd way, helped Welsh. Celtic took stock and extended his contract by a year so it would expire in 2022 rather than 2021. His performances had caught the eye of numerous Premiership clubs in Scotland and Celtic were inundated with offers last September – and even this January – for a loan move. By that point, though, he had done enough to be on the fringes of the first team.

His big break came against Rangers last October. The sheer number of injuries forced Lennon to turn to him. Celtic lost 2-0, but Welsh came out of the game in a good light. The underwhelming displays by Brighton loanee Shane Duffy, and the long-term injury to Christopher Jullien, afforded him more starts. He has now played 15 matches for Celtic this term and has been largely flawless.

Interim manager John Kennedy has watched his progress through the club and there is a great mutual respect between them. Regardless of who is in charge next season, Welsh will get a chance. Jullien won’t be back until the autumn, Ajer has been touted for a move away and Welsh is probably ahead of the returning Jack Hendry and utility man Nir Bitton. Naturally, new defenders will come in, but it’s Welsh’s jersey to lose.

At a club where not many academy graduates last the course, Welsh will now look to continue his progression. Scotland this summer may come too soon – Steve Clarke is keeping tabs on him – but Welsh, it appears, has lots to look forward to.

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