Why it's another big season for stand-in Celtic skipper as 'underrated' former teammate hailed

Stephen Welsh might not be a new player but he’s a committed one and has trust of manager

It must be slightly disconcerting for those already at the club when the annual frenzy of anxiety begins, as seems to happen every summer at

Celtic. Where are all the new signings? Where’s the new blood? We don’t want him, we want someone else. Someone new.

Stephen Welsh is not someone new. He’s now 24, which might surprise some people, not least because he still looks so young. He’s been at Celtic all of his career save for a spell on loan at Morton. In terms of a first-team breakthrough, he has been there or thereabouts for what seems like a while now. Could this be his year?

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Well, he knows that’s been said before and having signed a new long-term contract as recently as last August, it’s not as if the clock is ticking in that respect. Still, with the defender now in his mid-twenties, regular game-time must now be paramount in his thoughts.

Celtic defender Stephen Welsh sports the armband as he marshalls Ayr United's George Oakley along with young teammates Kyle Ure (No 54) and Josh Dede (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)Celtic defender Stephen Welsh sports the armband as he marshalls Ayr United's George Oakley along with young teammates Kyle Ure (No 54) and Josh Dede (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)
Celtic defender Stephen Welsh sports the armband as he marshalls Ayr United's George Oakley along with young teammates Kyle Ure (No 54) and Josh Dede (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

He was given a lift by being named skipper for Friday night’s 1-1 friendly draw against Ayr United, although of course he appreciates he was leading a young, inexperienced team. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know Brendan Rodgers identified him as someone able to help the likes of teenagers Andrew Kyle and Josh Dede through the game. He was also required to be a stabilising influence on 19-year-old defensive partner Lenny Agbaire when he came on and then soon afterwards committed the mistake that allowed the hosts to equalise from the spot through Anton Dowds.

“The gaffer mentioned about the young lads coming up, it’s about personality, it’s about wanting come and take the ball,” reflected Welsh. “I know exactly how it feels as a young lad coming up and playing with the first-team. It can be very daunting, even in a pre-season game.”

Welsh guided them through in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch (Rodgers made ten changes at half-time). He cherished leading the team out in front of a healthy crowd of nearly 10,000, with the game having been arranged to officially open the new North Stand at Somerset Park. “As a young fan, that is the dream,” he said. “Even in a pre-season friendly, there is no better feeling than that. I just went out and enjoyed it.”

Asked if he could interpret being given the armband as a signal of trust in him from Rodgers, he said he could, which must be encouraging. “It’s all you can ask for from the gaffer,” he said. “If he trusts you, then you can trust yourself on the pitch.”

As for this season being a make-or-break for him personally, he made the point that this could be said about anyone at a club where so much is demanded. “I think every player at Celtic gets asked that: 'Is it a big season for us?'” he said. “Every game is a big game for us, every training session is a big training session for us, we look at it each day. We’re not thinking about Queen’s Park (on Wednesday) yet, we are thinking about training tomorrow. I think that is the mentality that this group has got. It doesn’t matter who we are playing and when we are playing, it’s just about the next session to build up to that and then when the game comes, we give it 100 per cent.”

Defence is one area where extensive change could come. Rodgers will look to strengthen at left-back and right-back as well as at centre-half, where Welsh plays - sometimes. He managed just 14 appearances last season although he was hardly helped by a succession of injuries, including damaged ankle ligaments in August, when he was hoping to establish himself in the first team.

He is hoping for better fortune this season, something that seems to have been denied defensive partner Maik Nawrocki, who was forced off against Ayr after a calf knock. With the Pole’s future in question, Rodgers will need to address centre-half cover.

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There’s also a huge question about what might happen behind Welsh and his defensive colleagues. Joe Hart's departure has left a huge hole and though Rodgers used as many as three goalkeepers on Friday against Ayr United, it would be a surprise if one of Scott Bain, Tobi Oluwayemi or Josh Clarke lines up against Kilmarnock next month when Celtic start the defence of their title.

Welsh believes what Hart did for the club has not been praised enough. “It’s no secret Harty was a massive influence in the changing room over the last three years,” he said. “I don’t think it has been mentioned enough how good he was for us, I think he was very underrated.”

Another veteran whose worth went slightly unnoticed for the simple reason that he was not playing is James Forrest. However far out of the picture Welsh or anyone else seems, the winger’s example is a heartening one. Forrest came in from nowhere towards the end of last season and made a significant contribution to Celtic’s double-winning campaign, scoring five times in the last nine games. He did enough to earn himself a place in the Scotland Euro 2024 squad.

“Jamesie was absolutely outstanding for us last season,” said Welsh. “I think it was very difficult for him as he’s a player that wants to play every game as we all do. The way he finished the season was incredible and I think we can take a lot from that.

“An experienced player who maybe one or two things haven’t gone his way and he goes and finishes the season like that. I think that is something all the young lads can look up to.”

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