There is a smile and a glint in his eye as Olivier Ntcham says it is the “commitment” he relishes most about the Scottish game – his French take on the blood-and-snotters basis for our football. The 22-year-old midfielder has a chuckle, too, when he considers how much of this he will be able to embrace when Celtic line up against Motherwell in tomorrow’s potentially epoch-making Scottish Cup final.
Although his powerful physique would seem to make him a natural for prospering here, Ntcham has shown plenty of personal commitment to ensuring this is the case. Eased in carefully to Scottish football by Brendan Rodgers following his £4.5 million move from Manchester City last summer, the Parisien accepted this because he recognised he wasn’t ready to cope with the hectic, game-every-three-days schedule that is prevalent at Celtic – and far removed from his experiences on loan at Genoa for the previous two seasons. To his great credit, he took it upon himself to do something about this.
“I am training more because I have a second coach from Paris called Reda Bekhti, who comes over to help me and that has helped me to adapt to the Scottish game,” Ntcham said. “In Italy, I was only playing one game a week but here we were playing three games. It was a big change for me and the club were supportive of me bringing him in.
“He comes over to Glasgow two or three times a month to work with me. He works with me on my position and my use of the ball in games as well as my game understanding. I have known him since I was only 13 as he was my coach back in Paris, so I trust him to be able to help me.
“We have kept in touch over the years and he is always there to help me. He gives me a lot of confidence. He watches all my matches and he tries to pass on advice. He can see what aspects of my game I have to improve on.”
Ntcham has improved immeasurably since his early months at the club when he struggled to impose himself in games. Now he is a bedrock alongside Scott Brown, so much so that Rodgers would not consider any other option when selecting his team for major fixtures.
“It is very nice for me, he shows me the confidence,” the midfielder said. “And on the pitch I need to give him the right response back. I am a lot different as a player from when I came here at first. I was fit but not like today. A the beginning of the season when I couldn’t play three games in a row it was maybe two, rest one, another two again. The manager said that to me, you are not going to play every game this season because you have to be careful with yourself. If I had played every game and got injured that would have been bad for me.”
Ntcham says “yes and no” when asked whether Rodgers’ limiting of his game exposure across his opening months in Glasgow was difficult for him. “Because I understand it was for me,” he said. “I think when you come here, I had been everywhere, Italy, France, England. Here is like England, just about the commitment, the way you play, everyone can understand whether you are a lazy player, it is just about your commitment. But it is true you can never get to the top until you can play every time. If you want to perform you have to play a lot of games and you have to know your own body.”
If personal coach Bekhti has been an off-field mentor, his captain Scott Brown has performed that role on the pitch. “I have learned a lot from Scott,” he said. “He has such commitment in his aggression and tackling, and when I see that I want to do the same as he does.”
Both players will require to be at their bustling best against a Motherwell side that will be in their faces as they try to claim a first trophy for their club in 27 years and in the process end the quest of Rodgers’ men to become the first team to win back-to-back trebles. Whatever the challenge, or challenges indeed, Celtic are required to deal with at Hampden tomorrow is fine by Ntcham.
“It will be a tough game for us because Motherwell always give us a difficult game,” he said.
“They fight for every single ball, they run their socks off and we know how tough this will be. I enjoy the physical battle in games, so I always love the matches we have with Motherwell. It is a good test for players and one we thrive on. Teams like Hearts and Motherwell are physical but we are strong enough to cope with that and we have shown that throughout the season.”