How Anthony Ralston and Stephen Welsh contributed to Celtic 13-year first in Europe - and why Steve Clarke should take notice

Celtic’s 2-0 win over AZ Alkmaar last night had a significance beyond putting Ange Postecoglou’s men in a strong position ahead of the return leg of their Europa League play-off in the Netherlands next Thursday.

Celtic's Callum McGregor, Stephen Welsh and Anthony Ralston were among five academy graduates who took the field against AZ Alkmaar (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Across the 90 minutes, no fewer than five products of the club’s youth academy took the field – Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Stephen Welsh and Anthony Ralston starting, with Adam Montgomery appearing from the bench. It is 13 years – a 2-0 win over Villareal in the Champions League, when Stephen McManus, Shaun Maloney, Aiden McGeady, Darren O’Dea and Paul McGowan featured at various points – since Celtic deployed so many home-grown personnel in a European encounter.

It may yet still be a case of needs-must for Postecoglou in certain instances. But the needs are producing must-have-some-rethinks-here when it comes to assessing the worth of the supposedly desperate inheritance adjudged to have confronted the Australian on taking charge in the summer. Especially in the cases of Ralston and Welsh. And the inconceivable growth in stature enjoyed by the pair over the past month under Postecoglou’s guidance leads to intriguing posers not just about Celtic going forward. The comprehensively revised opinions of the pair could have implications for Scotland. Never mind what their displays mean for the starting XI Postecoglou selects for his humungous first derby at Ibrox a week on Sunday.

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Twitter today was awash with Celtic supporters offering up apologies for previous - brutal - castigations of a Ralston whose unfaltering drive and concentration was crucial to an unlikely clean-sheet against a formidable front-foot Dutch opponent. The domain seemed a cyber take on the old Private Eye parody of newspaper reverse ferrets. “We may have given the impression that Anthony Ralston is nothing better than a pub player, a competition winner, who shouldn’t be within a 100 miles of Celtic Park. We would like to acknowledge that the right-back is, in fact, a fearless competitor with no little ability and would like to apologise for any previous confusion.”

Celtic's Anthony Ralston makes his way down the touchline watched by Alkmaar's Dani de Wit. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

No-one is suggesting Ralston has suddenly become the Scottish Cafu. Or that, should - as expected - Celtic push through the pending £2.5m deal for Croatian international right-back Josip Juranovic in the next few days, the pedigree 26-year-old from Legia Warsaw won’t in time push Ralston to the fringes.

However, what has changed is that there is no desperation from the support that this scenario immediately comes to pass. Neither should there be. It is an opinion that seems shared by Postecoglou, who posited that the need for another right-back is as much to do with the workload being heaped on Ralston - the only man to play every second of Celtic’s eight games this season. The 55-year-old setting that out in no uncertain terms.

“I’m not bringing in people to replace people,” he said. “I’m bringing in players to support the ones we have here. It’s inconceivable that they’re going to play every game. Callum McGregor probably thinks he can – and he probably could. But we have to be careful. I’m not looking for players to replace the ones we’ve got. I’m looking for players to complement what we’ve got, so we can keep building a strong squad – which we’re going to need. Especially playing the football we do, we need bodies. I’ve said right back is a priority position because Anthony is the only one we’ve got. He’s doing unbelievably well and he needs support. At the end [against Alkmaar], he was still sprinting forward trying to create things. And I know he would have been running on empty, having played every minute of every bloody game. If we keep showing that spirit, the football will improve.”

Ralston has improved unbelievably because he has stayed injury free, and earned both his most concerted run in the side and the trust of his manager and fanbase. Half his senior minutes for Celtic in the five years since the 22-year-old’s debut have been in the past month. All but the last part is also true of 21-year-old Welsh, another who tended to elicit only dark murmuring from the club’s faithful until recently. Rarely do developing players prosper during instability, and so many of the Celtic squad were ground down by misadventures of last season, when cente-back Welsh was given his first regular senior exposure.

Celtic defender Stephen Welsh denies AZ Alkmaar's Evangelos Pavlidis (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

However, the judgements on Ralston seem to forget the claims made for him when he was first deployed by Brendan Rodgers in 2017. Then he was garlanded by Kilmarnock manager of that time Lee McCulloch. “What a player,” he offered of him following a 1-0 victory in August that year. “After we lost 5-0 [to Celtic two weeks earlier] I was asked how it felt to be beaten by such a young team but Anthony is going to be Scotland’s right-back soon in my opinion. That’s how good he is.” For his part, Rodgers was equally glowing, comparing the then 18-year-old’s maturity to a 28-year-old, and commending his “tactical awareness”.

These facets Ralston has eye-poppingly enhanced under Postecoglou, true too of Welsh. They have helped Celtic develop a rhythm that their manager is unlikely to upset going to the Govan abode of the champions next week. Beyond that, Scotland face three decisive World Cup qualifiers against Denmark, Moldova and Austria. Steve Clarke entrusted berths in his Euro 2020 squad to Motherwell right-back Stephen O’Donnell and Oostende’s Jack Hendry. With respect to both, no Celtic fan who would swap these performers for Ralston and Welsh, while the Parkhead duo are playing under pressures, and to a level, not true of O’Donnell and Hendry. The Celtic defenders’ claims for selection in Clarke’s next squad are utterly compelling then. The hugely promising Nathan Patterson may be the one for Scotland’s right-back berth in the long-term, but his paucity of game-time this season seriously weakens the case for that graduation beginning next month. Ralston and Welsh are players in-form, and in the groove. That should be recognised for club and country over the coming weeks.

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