Ryan Christie’s influence has stretched beyond his own contribution on the field, which has been considerable enough in recent weeks.
The Celtic midfielder, who made a cameo against Dundee on Saturday after his earlier than expected return from an ankle injury, has been a spur for others who, like him, feared their time at the club was likely to end sooner rather than later.
Anthony Ralston has re-emerged 15 months after he earned approval in some quarters for roughing up Neymar. In truth, there was little to applaud that night as his methods when attempting to stop the Paris St Germain playmaker were often agricultural in the extreme.
Neymar was criticised for refusing to shake hands with his then 18-year-old opposite man afterwards but why should he have done so after being on the end of such treatment? But Ralston went away and got his head down, agreeing to a loan spell at Dundee United in the Championship in the second half of last season. It was an experience that provided a contrast to the glitz of a Champions League night against the richest club in the world.
Ralston’s last first-team appearance before last week was for Dundee United on a heart-breaking night at Livingston when they lost the play-off semi-final. He’s been up, he’s been down, he’s been overlooked and criticised by manager Brendan Rodgers and he has, more recently, been praised.
It’s no wonder he has required something to gee him up at times. The sight of Christie re-igniting his Celtic career has been particularly helpful.
“Ryan has been great, and has really kicked on,” said Ralston after keeping his place for Saturday’s 3-0 win over Dundee. “He has made a real impact on the team and he has been an inspiration to everyone out of the team that, if they go in and put a marker down, then they can stay in the team. He has been terrific for us since the start of the season.”
Christie recently signed a new three-year contract after taking full advantage of an opportunity handed to him because of an injury to Olivier Ntcham during the Betfred Cup semi-final against Hearts in late October. Ralston, now 20, has done likewise after Mikael Lustig suffered concussion in the defeat against Hibs eight days ago.
He stepped in at right-back and scored his first goal for Celtic in the 3-0 win over Motherwell last midweek. He should have had another in the comfortable win over Dundee but saw his second-half shot bash back off Jack Hamilton’s far post.
Ralston, who signed a new four-and-a-half-year deal this time last year, knows his future is secure but wanted evidence he had not fallen completely out of Rodgers’ plans this season. The manager has provided it and singled out Ralston afterwards, describing him as having “developed in terms of when he presses and where he receives it – that’s what I want, he’s shown over two games that he can do it”.
Ralston returned the compliment. “He [Rodgers] helped me out during the tough time, and he kept me going during the dip that I had. So I kept my hunger, I kept going into training, and kept showing that, hopefully, one day I’d get my opportunity and that I could take it.”
He admits he also needed the support of his family to help cope as he struggled to regain Rodgers’ trust.
“I’ve got a good family and good friends around me, to help keep my mentality going,” he said. “It’s not easy at times but you just need to keep working hard. Everyone is in the same boat in that regard – if you keep going in and working hard, then you’ll get your rewards.”
Two starts in a defence that has kept successive clean-sheets provides Ralston with extra Christmas cheer and it’s not certain he will step aside to let Lustig reclaim the right-back position on Wednesday. But Aberdeen away is a different proposition to home games against Motherwell and Dundee, when Celtic had it all their own way.
Teenager Mikey Johnston, another who’s stepped into the breach to hand Rodgers the kind of dilemma he wants when it comes to picking his starting XI for the Boxing Day fixture, scored twice either side of half-time to break the resistance of a limited Dundee side. Filip Benkovic added another after 69 minutes.
Dundee will be glad to see the back of a week where they were required to visit Rugby Park, Pittodrie and Celtic Park in quick succession. They have conceded 11 goals and scored just twice. But it is what occurred elsewhere that’s worsened their plight – both St Mirren and Hamilton Accies picked up something in the same period to leave Dundee detached at the bottom. Jim McIntyre’s side now face two crucial home fixtures against Livingston and St Johnstone.
“St Mirren won at the weekend and that’s the way the league is now,” said midfielder Paul McGowan. “But we can’t come in and say, ‘What are the other results?’
“We need to look after ourselves. At Aberdeen, we were nowhere near it. I didn’t see that coming.
“Livi is going to be as hard a game as Celtic because they battle and fight for every ball. I have watched them a lot and been impressed.
“St Johnstone have also been brilliant this season. It’s only going to get harder and we need to stand up now.”