Anthony Ralston: Celtic scrapbook is reading like a fairytale after dramatic career turn
Ahead of this season, it seemed for all the world that Anthony Ralston’s Celtic scrapbook would be a pretty sorry affair, with scant entries.
The right-back’s moments to be preserved for posterity before his rebirth under Ange Postecoglou since July didn’t amount to a whole lot. There was a first goal for the club in a 5-0 League Cup lashing of Kilmarnock in September 2017 - 16 months on from his senior debut in a defeat away to St Johnstone - that prompted then Rugby Park manager Lee McCulloch to predict correctly that Ralston’s talents would see him graduate to the national side.
Then there was his skirmishing with Neymar in the Champions League a month on from McCulloch’s anointing. Memories of Ralston against Paris Saint-Germain extend no further than a callow 18-year-old Celtic academy product giving the Brazilian it tight by screaming in his face with fist clenched following a crunching tackle. A cringe-inducing incident owing to his illustrious opponent proving otherwise untouchable as he ran amok with two goals in a 5-0 slaying.
There was also the off-the-ball roughing up by Alfredo Morelos in a derby defeat at Ibrox four years ago.
Beyond that, precious little. Between loan spells with Dundee United and St Johnstone, his rare senior Celtic outings were notable only for grumbles at his presence from a support he numbers himself among.
The same support, indeed, he led in uproarious celebrations at full-time in Dingwall on Wednesday night – Ralston orchestrating these because he had ignited them with a crashing 97th minute header to claim Ange Postecoglou’s 10-men a bonkers 2-1 victory that seemed certain would elude them.
It made for one more cut-out-and-keep experience across campaign in which these do not seem as if they will ever stop piling up for the 23-year-old…his international debut earned by a run of exceptional form that has made him a banker for his Australian manager, a five-goal contributor no less, and is entitled to have the Celtic full-back feeling he can fulfill all manner of his football dreams. A quest he can progress by claiming a first winners’ medal earned through playing an integral on-field role, an opportunity afforded by Sunday's Premier Sports Cup final. “I hope so,” he said of at last taking part in such a showpiece as an established first team performer. “It will be a special occasion for the club, the first chance this season to get a trophy. So we’ll be going there focused on what we need to do. We all know the magnitude of the game. But it’s important we go into every game with the same mentality.”
Ralston doesn’t deny he will head to Hampden on the back of a matchwinning strike that gave him personal satisfaction “right up there with anything else” to come from his time in Celtic colours. “I’ve never been involved in a last minute winner,” he said. “I’m delighted for the supporters who travelled despite their work commitments. It’s midweek and they went all the way up to Dingwall. It’s nothing less than they deserve.”
The right-back doesn’t seem to feel these fans deserve the strongest possible condemnation for the large-scale pitch invasion prompted by his header hitting the net. It may have been a brief incursion, but injuries to stewards highlight the folly of fans forcing their way on to the field, where they never have a right to be. In wrapping up his elated actions at the end with their outpouring – in every sense – Ralston makes a case for understanding how high that emotions can run in a nip-and-tuck title race. A contest in which dropping two points against County to fall six behind champions Rangers would have resulted in despondency taking grip among the Celtic faithful. “It was a heat of the moment thing [from me in leading celebrations at the end] and we all got a bit carried away, but that is part and parcel of the game,” he said.
Acutely weakened by the injury loss of six attackers in Kyogo Furuhashi, Jota, James Forrest, Albian Ajeti, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Mikey Johnston and a man down on the evening following Carl Starfelt’s red card late on, in the fact of such handicaps Postecoglou’s men never resigned themselves to a draw. That is a reflection of the mindset that the 56-year-old has drilled into his Celtic squad. His players didn’t cast aside their probing, passing approach, throw their big players up and launch balls into the box in the hope of getting a lucky break in the box. Indeed, at one point Postecoglou sent Joe Hart back towards his goal when the English international intimated he wanted to go up for a corner. Instead, they crafted a winner with Tom Rogic producing an artful cross that Ralston buried with aplomb. “We always believed throughout,” said the Bellshill-born defender. “It’s instilled in us all that no matter what happens in a game, no matter the circumstances or the challenges we’re faced with, we can overcome them.”
And Ralston has overcome recent fitness challenges of his own to become Celtic’s highest scorer outside of the attacking department with three headers and two left-foot finishes. It is only a fortnight since he suffered a tear in his ankle against Hearts, an issue he feared might derail his season of seasons. “We’ve a great physio staff and I’ve done the right things and now I’m feeling good and ready to play,” he said. “It’s one of those things, when you get a injury at that moment you aren’t sure what it is. I was glad it wasn’t as severe as first thought and I was able to do the right rehab over the course of a week or so. I just wanted to come back and contribute to the team as quickly as I could, and in the most positive way.”
As has become the Ralston way, he exceeded expectations on that front.
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