Celtic first-team coach John Kennedy insists Torino would be wasting their time with a fresh bid for Jozo Simunovic next month and has tipped the Croatian central defender to eventually follow in Virgil van Dijk’s footsteps to become a major star in the English Premier League.
Simunovic was on the verge of leaving Celtic on the last day of the summer transfer window when his proposed move to Torino broke down after a late disagreement over the terms of the deal between the Scottish champions and the Serie A club.
That has come to be regarded as serendipity for both Celtic and Simunovic. The 22-year-old, who was troubled by injury during his first season at the club following his £4 million move from Dinamo Zagreb in 2015, has since established himself as a stand-out performer in a team revitalised by Brendan Rodgers.
Torino are now reported to be lining up another attempt to sign Simunovic when the transfer window opens next month but Kennedy, who works closely with the player on the training ground, claims he is now too vital a part of Rodgers’ plans to be sold at this stage.
Kennedy believes Simunovic will stay and go on to match the standards set by former Celtic defender Van Dijk who was sold to Southampton for £13m in 2015 and is now being linked with a £40m move to Chelsea or Manchester City.
“We want to keep Jozo here,” said Kennedy. “He is a big player for us now and he showed that in our last couple of Champions League games. He is a top player, very important for us, and we want to keep our best players.
“At the time of the possible move to Torino earlier this season, he hadn’t quite come back from injury. He had just started training and the option was there for him to go to Turin. He travelled across, spoke to them and at that point in time, it was a decision for him to make if the clubs could agree a deal.
“It never happened for one reason or another, but he is back here now and is doing a great job for us, one that hopefully can last a long time. He’s a top centre-back. Even when we first looked at him, back when he was at Zagreb, he was the one everyone here agreed was the best option for us.
“When you’re talking about bringing in quality, he is that. He’s one that you bring in to improve the team. He’s been terrific, a fantastic boy to work with. He has a great attitude and is a super professional. Everything he does is for his career and for the good of this club. He is in a good position at the moment so it is just about maintaining that for him. He had a long period out last year but he has certainly looked strong since he came back.
“You can see, just the way his lines are physically, that he looks like a player. He’s got the height, the strength, the speed and technically he’s very good. On top of that, he’s got a fantastic attitude. Nowadays, proper centre-backs are very hard to come by. You look at Van Dijk, who all the top teams are now chasing. Jozo is certainly one who is of that ilk. He ticks a lot of boxes. You get a lot of centre-backs now who don’t really want to defend and that becomes a problem for you when you are put under pressure, but he’s certainly one that likes to put his head in. He makes tackles, but he can play when need be.
“Can he become better than Virgil? That’s a good question. It’s a tough one. Van Dijk’s a top player. Even when I worked with him here, I don’t think people appreciated what he was all about when he was playing in Scotland. A lot of English media and teams looked at him and thought ‘we’re unsure’, but he’s at the very top level. Jozo’s still got a little bit to go in terms of reaching that level but he certainly has it in his locker to keep progressing the way he is, so who knows?”
Kennedy has sensed that Van Dijk’s exceptional form at Southampton this season has helped foster a greater level of respect among leading English clubs for the standard of player development being undertaken by Celtic.
“In the last six months or so, their attitude is changing,” he added. “Now they are seeing that we do produce good players, we’re getting good players in and we’re making them better. So I think you’ll see, in the near future, that some of the big clubs will come and pluck the very best that we’ve got, because we do have high-calibre players. Moussa Dembele is getting all the headlines just now but we have a lot of players in the squad who could go and play Premier League football quite easily.
“When I watch English football now, Virgil is the best centre-back in the Premier League. He could play for any team he wants to. Even Barcelona. That’s the level I see him at. It would be stupid of some of the big teams in England not to make a move for him.”