Afirst goal in seven weeks and a first full 90 minutes of the year over the course of the past week suggest Ryan Christie is ready to grab any opportunities that come his way in the second half of the season. And he may not have to wait too long, with a trip to Aberdeen this afternoon followed by Thursday’s excursion to Copenhagen for the opening leg of the club’s Europa League last-32 tie.
Yet a very different grab has haunted the Celtic midfielder across the early weeks of 2020. It was a period during which he had to recover from a groin operation required following the derby defeat at home by Rangers that ushered in the three-week winter shutdown but that appears to have been more straightforward after a two-match suspension imposed on him for snatching at the groin of Alfredo Morelos during the 2-1 defeat.
The chain of events that followed the incident left Christie feeling like a criminal, he says. The 24-year-old was deemed to have committed a deliberate act of brutality when he clamped his hand in the Colombian’s nether regions as he fouled the striker who had bundled passed him. His club went on the warpath in contesting the charge, but the result was that Christie was required to endure what proved the deeply-troubling experience of appearing before the judicial panel.
Speaking for the first time about the episode, the player maintains his innocence. His hand contact on Morelos wasn’t picked up until days after the Old Firm game – a grim day for him on three fronts owing to his having a penalty saved by Allan McGregor – and when he heard it had morphed into a ban, the Scotland international thought he was having his chain pulled.
“I first heard about it when my mate sent me through a screenshot, and I thought it was a joke. I thought it was a wind-up,” said Christie.
“As soon as the game was done, it wasn’t even a thought. Maybe ten seconds after that tackle it was out of my head. He took the ball past me, it was an obviously foul, but it was all very strange when I got called back up.
“I couldn’t even remember the incident – I said that to the panel during the hearing as well. I didn’t even realise where I had grabbed at the time. It wasn’t until I watched the footage back that I even realised my hand had gone there. Obviously it was pretty bizarre to me, and I’ve had plenty of people from across the football map get in touch and express their feelings about it as well.”
Christie’s defence in the daunting circumstances of having to explain himself, via a video link, to a three-strong fast-track tribunal assembled at Hampden was that he acted instinctively, reaching out his hand as he fell.
“It was very strange, something I’ve never been part of before. I’ve always heard guys talking about going into these hearings before to fight decisions, but I’ve never done it,” he said. “It was so serious, it felt like I was in a proper court case, like I was going away to jail if I was found guilty. But that’s what I said in my defence, as soon as a player goes past you, your first reaction is to try to get your body, or something, between them and the ball. It just so happened my hand went there.”
The punishment handed out ultimately didn’t much change the past month for Christie. He is unable to find a starting place in the team because he missed the early games post-break, certainly. However, his groin problem, operated on immediately after the derby encounter on 29 December, left him unable to take part in the sessions that Celtic were put through during their training camp in Dubai.
The scintillating form of the runaway Premiership leaders at large and Christie’s replacement Olivier Ntcham, inset, in particular, coupled with the switch to a 3-5-2, has limited the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle man’s exposure to senior action in recent weeks. In the long run, though, the enforced break may prove beneficial for the Highlander. As with many in Lennon’s squad, he was exhibiting a certain weariness in December as the consequence of the sheer volume of games he had played over the first half of the season. Judging by recent sightings, his ebullience and industry certainly seem to the fore in his game again. His goal touch would appear to have returned too, thanks to a strike in the 5-0 midweek win over Hearts that took his season tally to 18. Christie has become so central to Celtic in the past year and a half that his current status as a substitute – which is unlikely to change in today’s encounter at Aberdeen – doesn’t come easily. He has no doubts, though, that he will come good again.
“It’s frustrating when you’re on the sidelines and desperate to be a part of it,” Christie said. “It goes without saying you want the boys to do well and keep the run going, but you want to be part of it too. So it was good to come on and get the goal against Hearts and feel a bit more part of it again.
“[But the break] didn’t do any harm. Obviously I’ve got a job to get back in the team now but I feel as fresh as ever. I’ve almost had another pre-season and I’m ready to get going again. We played a lot of games, and especially December, how many games… and towards the end of the month you’re warming up thinking ‘I don’t feel anywhere near 100 per cent here…’ So when the break comes, you feel you need it.
“I’m confident I can get back to where I was. You need to keep working hard and it’ll always be the same at Celtic, when you drop out it’s hard to come straight back in, you need to work your way there then do your thing when you get the chance. I hope I’ve still got a big part to play between now and the end of the season because there are so many big games, domestically and in Europe as well.”