How Anthony Ralston went from Celtic outcast to Scotland contention

You are 18 years of age. You are playing for your boyhood club on the biggest stage against some of the game’s biggest stars.

Anthony Ralston has been impressive for Celtic this season. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)
Anthony Ralston has been impressive for Celtic this season. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Life doesn’t get much sweeter.

That seemed to be the case for Celtic’s Anthony Ralston. The right-back was handed a start by manager Brendan Rodgers on the right of defence against the might of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

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Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Marco Veratti, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani.

Neymar.

Even at 3-0 down, Ralston, understandably for a teenager, was still enjoying himself on the pitch and getting under the skin of the then most expensive player in the world.

The moment he squared up to Neymar, the players exchanging words, before laughing in the Brazilian's face went viral.

Four years on and it remains a defining moment of the right-back’s career. It seemed it would be THE defining moment, certainly of his Celtic career.

One of Ralston's most notable moments in a Celtic shirt was his clash with Neymar. Picture: SNS

Between that 5-0 defeat and the start of this season, Ralston played just 13 games for the Parkhead club. There were also largely underwhelming loan spells at Dundee United and St Johnstone.

Last season and a solitary appearance in a 0-0 draw with Livingston seemed like being his last.

New contract

Such was the state of the Celtic squad, however, he was afforded a year extension almost by default due to being the club’s only right-back.

Ralston has extended his deal at until 2025. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Default? The two sweetest words in the English language.

Yet, it just so happens it was a very smart piece of business. The 22-year-old is no longer Celtic right-back by default. He is there on merit, keeping Croatian international Josip Juranovic at bay and earlier this week penned an extension until the summer of 2025.

Ralston's resurrection is not only one of the surprises of the season, but the stories of the season.

His presence in the Celtic defence when the season started will likely have prompted scoffing from around the country as well as amongst his own support.

Scotland call-up?

Those scoffs have stopped and he has put himself in serious contention for a Scotland berth.

There can be no question that if Steve Clarke was picking his Scotland squad solely on club performances and general form, Ralston would be in ahead of not only Stephen O’Donnell but Nathan Patterson as well. The talented Rangers has started more games for his country this season and in the league for his club. As for the Motherwell captain, it isn't unfair to say he hasn’t been at his best for a number of months now.

Going back to 2017, three months after that appearance against PSG, he was handed a long-term deal by Celtic.

You could see logic behind the move, the club likely thinking they had the right-sided Kieran Tierney on their hands. A product of the youth system, a boyhood fan, making his mark in the first-team as a teenager.

This always leads to a curious decision for clubs with regards to promising starlets within their ranks. Do they hand out contracts on the smaller scale length wise and risk losing the player on a free contract down the line or do they secure the star on a long-term deal, the risk on that end is that the player perhaps becomes complacent or doesn’t progress in the manner that it was first hoped.

Never giving up

Ralston certainly didn’t follow the progress trajectory of his peer Tierney. In fact, as the now Arsenal star went up and up and up, Ralston appeared to stagnate and even regress.

At that point, especially at a club like Celtic where second is last, the way back is a long way that, for many, would be insurmountable.

“I would never give up on playing here, and that was the case come the end of last season," he said.

“I was at the end of my contract, hadn’t been involved and wasn’t playing, so it wasn’t easy, definitely not. Whenever I was doing my training sessions it was just about getting myself right."

In Ange Postecoglou he has found the perfect manager.

The Australian arrived through the door and with it arrived a clean slate. For some, they didn't want to be part of the new era. Others were simply not fancied. Then the likes of Ralston and Tom Rogic were given a new lease of life and have returned performances more in keeping with what it takes to remain at Parkhead.

Key attacking outlet

The right-back’s season hasn’t been all plain sailing. He has looked uncomfortable when asked to play in an inverted full-back position, collecting the ball facing his own goal.

Ralston thrives with the game in front of him, moving onto the ball, having a wing to not run but gallop up and down. He covers ground excellently, supports play and the winger, often Liel Abada so well with off-the-ball movements which maintain Celtic’s width.

Yet, when he does get in the final third he can be a destructive presence and has been hugely effective moving infield.

He scored a lovely solo goal against Hearts in the opening league game of the season which was a sign of things to come and added two more and an assist since.

Ralston crosses regularly but it is a skill he needs to finesse, something James Forrest has managed to do. No defender averages more touches in the opposition box and has the sixth best dribble success rate in the league.

Defensively, his game requires work but his stature, his athleticism gives him a brilliant platform to be a very good one v one full-back and perform a wing-back role.

There is certainly more to come from him. But the fact there is more to come as a Celtic player highlights such a stark improvement as he continues to write more defining chapters in his career than the evening he laughed in Neymar’s face.

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