Celtic boss Neil Lennon backs Ryan Christie to hit the goal trail
That sentiment has solidified with closer exposure to the midfielder, albeit that Lennon and Christie find themselves working for the cause of Celtic rather than Hibernian.
Celtic’s failure to prise John McGinn from the Easter Road side last summer had a ripple effect on Christie’s career in more ways than one; had the Scotland internationalist ended up in Glasgow rather than Birmingham it’s doubtful that there would have been a natural opening for Christie to make his mark at Celtic, aside from the likelihood that he wouldn’t have been there.
“I wanted him at Hibs as part of the McGinn deal if it was going to happen,” explained now Celtic manager Lennon. “I’d been impressed with him at Aberdeen. Thankfully that didn’t happen – he’s taken his chance when it came along and not looked back. It was maybe [a sliding doors moment] but he’s made the most of it. He’s come in at a really good period of his career and he wants to make the most of it.”
Christie’s journey from bit-part player to pivotal member of the side came with some alacrity last term. Having forced his way into the side in October as Celtic juggled European commitments with domestic responsibilities, it was a Betfred Cup semi-final at Murrayfield where Christie really made his mark.
He took his chance and a bit more besides. Before Christie’s season was prematurely curtailed by a horrific head clash with Aberdeen’s Dominic Ball in April, an injury that required surgery and the insertion of metal plates into his jaw, the playmaker had made his way into the Scotland set-up and chipped in 11 goals to Celtic’s season.
He looks more than capable of picking up where he left off. The midfielder has netted three goals in three games already this term with Lennon looking to widen the scope for Christie by playing him in an advanced position.
“A lot of the time Brendan [Rodgers] or Derek [McInnes] would play him in a three in midfield,” said Lennon. “I like to see him a little bit more advanced in the ten. He can do attacking midfield no problem as well. There’s that string to his bow where he can play a number of positions. I obviously want him in attacking areas because I think he can open up defences. I think he’s got goals in him.
“Considering it’s so early he’s just full of energy. I loved the second goal [against Nomme Kalju] because I think he can do that more. He really meant it and it comes with confidence. He’s trying to make things happen. That’s three he’s got and it’s a great start for him. I don’t like setting targets. I think that puts players under undue pressure. I just want him to play as much as he can and stay injury free as much as he can. If that’s the case he’ll certainly be an asset for us in the season ahead. He’s reaping all the rewards of that patience and hard work behind the scenes.
“He’s a great pro and a great lad. He’s one of those lads you really want to do well for himself as much as anyone else. His injury in the semi-final was horrific, and he had a bad injury previous to that. But he’s taken that rehab time to get physically stronger. It’s a great example to other players to not feel sorry for themselves.”
The return leg of Celtic’s tie against Estonian minnows Nomme Kalju is little more than a formality, the Parkhead side taking a commanding 5-0 lead into tomorrow’s game in Tallinn. Lennon is liable to ring the changes in order to give other players game time, but he has insisted there is a significant amount of work still to be done if they are to make it into the group stage of the Champions League.
“It’s early yet so we’re not getting carried away,” he said. “It’s a job well done so far. In the first 20 minutes we were tentative and it was a bit of a slow start but once we hit our straps we were absolutely excellent. There’s still a lot we can improve on as we go along.”