On the surface of it, 2019 is starting for Mikey Johnston just as did 2018. The Celtic winger yesterday headed off with the rest of Brendan Rodgers’ squad to Dubai for a winter training camp, as was the case 12 months ago. However, there the parallels end for the 19-year-old.
In the closing weeks of last year Johnston made the breakthrough that he has sought since his senior debut in May 2017. He started three of Celtic’s final four pre-shutdown fixtures and, more significantly, netted three times in those games to open his first-team goal account. An injury crisis that left the club without a striker may have accounted for the wide player being pressed into action through the middle, but he certainly seized his moment.
Johnston showed his finishing prowess with a fine strike in a 3-0 win at home to Motherwell – which led to him tweeting that he was “living the dream” – only days before he netted a clinical double as the same scoreline was recorded against Dundee. The year may have ended with the bitter disappointment of derby defeat at Ibrox. However, the youngster was left with an impossible job to shine when leading the line that day, with Rangers’ swamping of Rodgers’ side resulting in him being entirely starved of service.
Despite that misery, Johnston can still reflect on having made significant progress in a season abridged by a hamstring problem that kept him out for the entirety of October. And it’s why he will not feel that he is retreading his footsteps when he flies out to the United Arab Emirates.
“Dubai, it’s an opportunity, especially for younger players,” he said. “Just being away every day and training, it gives opportunities to impress. I was there last year as well and it was the same but I felt more like a young player then, I was being brought away, I was getting chances but this year I’ve been a bit more involved and I feel like I’m not just coming on to make appearances sometimes, I want to try and stamp a place.”
Johnston’s task to make good on that goal would not appear to have been made any easier by Celtic’s loan signing of Olivier Burke from West Bromwich Albion yesterday. While the Midlands club’s £15 million buy is ostensibly a right-winger and the teenager’s preferred position is on the opposite flank, it is one more attacker to swell the ranks of those already operating at the Scottish champions.
It is likely two more forwards will also be added – Timothy Weah is expected to join on loan from PSG and two bids have been rejected by Slovakian club Dunajska Streda for Ivorian striker Vakoun Issouf Bayo – meaning that Johnston could have his openings seriously squeezed.
Yet, the fact that a clutch of home-grown products have prospered under Rodgers despite the intensity of the competition, most notably in the shape of Kieran Tierney, James Forrest and Callum McGregor, ensures Johnston is certain there is a pathway available to him.
“Everyone feels as if that’s there for players if you work hard,” he said. “There are always opportunities for people to come in, whether it’s training or games. I have always been handled well. The coaches here are all good, it’s their job isn’t it?”
Johnston’s talents have always been rated more than good, his exceptional close control lauded often by Scotland Under-21 manager Scot Gemmill. And in a year where he endured a series of niggles and strains, his performances in Toulon would rival his late flurry at Celtic for highlights of a mixed year. Not least the brilliant individual solo goal he produced in the semi-final defeat by England, wherein he weaved half the length of the pitch evading red jerseys as if they were cones on the training pitch before slamming a pinpoint effort in from an unforgiving angle.
“That was good,” said Johnston, whose boyhood idols were the similarly slight and skilful Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura. “I’d come back from injury, a thigh strain, I was out for nine weeks, and come back and played a few development squad games and then played in Toulon and it was good for my fitness and getting game time. Coming back for pre-season, I only had a week off, so it was good for that,” Johnston added.
“The whole year has been a bit up and down for me because I’ve had a few injuries and a couple of setbacks. It’s ended well but I have been a bit frustrated through the year, so hopefully I can have a more straightforward year this year.
“I’ve had to work really hard to get back fit a couple of times from a couple of injuries, not bad ones, but it sets you back a wee bit. You might have had chances in games and have been injured, so it’s frustrating, but I’ve worked hard and at the end of the year I’ve got my opportunities.”
His promotion came with a warning from his manager that he required to bulk up to cope with the physical demands of the game – a comment that echoed Gemmill’s assessment that he just had to wait for his body to catch up with his ability. The winger proves slightly defensive on the issue of physical development but does acknowledge that dealing with injuries has certainly assisted his growth when it comes to thinking situations through.
“I’ve always been smaller or more frail than everybody else, so hopefully I’m catching up a bit now,” he said. “I’m only 19, so it will come naturally as well, but I do work hard in the gym.
“My maturity has got better because at the start I’d get angry at being injured because when you’re young you can play more but when you get older, you start to pick up wee injuries and you just want to be back. It can be frustrating, but I’ve just had to be a bit more patient.”
That patience could be tested in the months ahead.