A genuine career breakthrough appeared to be made by Ryan Christie on Sunday. The Celtic attacker’s tie-transforming efforts in the Betfred Cup semi-final victory over Hearts saw to that. The fact his manager Brendan Rodgers is in accord with such a sentiment indicates just how significant his contribution at Murrayfield may prove in the long run.
It isn’t only that the Celtic manager believes the Highlander can now figuratively be a big player for the club on major occasions. Crucial to the 23-year-old flexing his muscle in such circumstances is Christie literally being a bigger figure than the one that Rodgers inherited when arriving at the club in June 2016.
Then, the Irishman genuinely did believe he was looking at a ten-stone weakling who was recruited from Inverness Caledonian Thistle for a £500,000 fee the previous September. Almost two stones – and two loan spells with Aberdeen – later, Rodgers believes Christie has grown into his tasks.
“It was a big step for him at the weekend,” said Rodgers, pictured, of the player, who came on and won a penalty then also netted as Celtic blew away Hearts in the second half. “When I came in, I had a boy of 64 kilos, who played as a striker against Motherwell, and I felt, ‘okay, here’s a talent but is he going to play regularly for me?’ I didn’t think he was, but he wasn’t 17 or 18. He was 21, so what would benefit him, thinking medium and longer term?
“He would benefit from playing games and feeling the pressure week in, week out, because coming from Inverness to Celtic is a big jump. Some players cope straight away when they come in as a 17-year-old. Raheem Sterling’s maturation level at that age was an example; a kid who was physically strong. Some players mature a bit later.
“I felt that with Ryan and his body type, he needed that. We were lucky to send him to a club where he would be under pressure, but still get regular game time. I had a conversation with Derek [McInnes] and that’s what we looked at.
“He went away and had 18 months playing, he played well and still had to develop and grow, but at least he was feeling pressure. Within that period, with the programme we had given him, he went from 64 kilos to 74. That was ten kilos of muscle there but he can carry that.
“That helps you with your physicality in the game, it helps him to press the game, it increases his running strength and power as well as his football ability. But what he probably needed was a big moment in an important game. He’s had those at Aberdeen as well in big games but that can be a real spark for his confidence.
“Now you see a boy at 23 who I feel is ready now to really participate. Now it’s about him and what he does on the pitch. He’s a great boy, a good guy and it’s been slow burning for him here but that was the plan. It was about taking his talent and bringing it to fruition and could he take the opportunity.”
An injury list that is likely to deprive Celtic of Olivier Ntcham and Eboue Kouassi from Sunday’s starting line-up should allow Christie to make only his ninth start for the club this evening. Between these appearances, and the 16 he has made from the bench, the attacker has occupied a variety of positions. Neither a natural striker nor winger, Christie’s prospects of game time may depend on finding a way to accommodate him and the club’s prized schemer-behind-the-forward in Tom Rogic.
“He’s a multi-functional player,” said Rodgers. “He’s a goal threat and wants to do so in an attacking structure. At the weekend he played as an attacking midfield player, he can do that. He has the power and strength to go and press. You look at him and Tom Rogic and wouldn’t say they were No 8s, they are both No 10s, but they can play in that role.
“He’s not a one against one, he’s not quick enough to go around the outside. It’s more about the inside with his eye for goal. You saw at the weekend. He played up there in an attacking formation and in that No 8. He’s a tactical player. I like to have as many goalscoring threats in my team as possible and he can do that.”