Darnell Fisher’s quirky route to Celtic first team

Celtic's Darnell Fisher trains yesterday in anticipation of playing tonight. Picture: SNS
Celtic's Darnell Fisher trains yesterday in anticipation of playing tonight. Picture: SNS
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HAVE you heard the one about the schoolboy from Reading who scored the winning goal for a team named after a Lisbon Lion in a youth tournament organised by Rangers?

The quirkiness of Darnell Fisher’s route to becoming a professional footballer at Celtic is certainly in stark contrast to the mass-produced development of young players in the modern game.

The 19-year-old has emerged this season as a capable deputy at right-back for the Scottish champions during spells when both Mikael Lustig and Adam Matthews have been injured. Fisher has played his part in recent weeks as Neil Lennon’s side have racked up ten consecutive domestic clean sheets.

It was in 2010 that the unusual chain of events which brought Fisher to Celtic’s attention began. At the time, he was playing in the Reading District Sunday League for Eldon Celtic. The name of the team now appears portentous, although they have no formal connection with the more famous Glasgow version.

In a friendly match held at Eton College, Fisher shone as Eldon Celtic under-16s defeated a visiting Jimmy Johnstone Academy side 4-2. The Cathkin-based outfit, named after the legendary Celtic winger, were so impressed by Fisher they asked him to travel north and play for them in the Rangers International Youth Tournament a few weeks later. In the annual Rangers event, held at the High School of Glasgow in Anniesland, Fisher scored four goals, including one in the final in which the Jimmy Johnstone Academy defeated the hosts 2-1.

His performances led to an invitation for a trial period with the Celtic under-17s, ultimately paving the way to a professional contract the following year.

“That Rangers tournament with the Jimmy Johnstone team was the start of it and I kicked on from there,” recalls Fisher.

“I was just playing in a sort of Sunday amateur league for Eldon Celtic. I didn’t think about football as a profession, but then the call came from Celtic and I just had to take the chance. It has paid off.

“The Sunday football was all good fun. I had to wash my own kit and take it home. There were no showers after the game, it was straight back into the car, straight home, get the kit off to wash it and have a bath. And then school the next day.

“We were all friends in the Eldon Celtic team. We played against people we knew from school. We wanted to beat them but also to have a laugh. As I say, I had no thoughts about professional football at that time.

“What was I going to do if not football? God knows, but I’d just left school at 16 and I was going to do a sports course at college, then see where that took me.

“I played for Farnborough FC for a while, in a league just one tier below the semi-professional set-up in England, so that was a good league and good standard which helped me out a lot.

“But it was that Rangers tournament for the Jimmy Johnstone team which got me to Celtic. I didn’t know who Jimmy Johnstone was, not at all. But, when I came up here, I got a DVD of him and watched it. He wasn’t bad!

“I’ve got photos of me standing beside the statue of him outside Celtic Park which were taken when I came up on trial at first. It was a big move for me at the time. It meant leaving family and friends behind, leaving home at quite a young age, but that is part of the game.

“When I go back down south, I go and watch my pals who still play at the Sunday amateur level. It’s a bit weird to think I’ve gone from that to playing for a Champions League team but, in football, anything can happen.”

Fisher made his first-team debut for Celtic in October, in the 1-1 draw against Hibs at Easter Road, and is tonight poised to make his tenth appearance for Lennon’s men as they entertain Kilmarnock in the re-arranged Premiership fixture. He is relishing his role in a back four who are moving ever closer to matching the all-time club record of 13 successive domestic clean sheets.

“It’s obviously bad for Mikael and Adam to have got the injuries which have given me my chance in the team,” added Fisher, “but it’s been good for me to play at this level and help the team stay unbeaten in the league.

“The whole back four and Fraser Forster have been working hard on the clean sheet record. We all want to do our bit to help the team. Virgil van Dijk has helped me out a lot, in terms of settling into the side, and I talk to Fraser a lot during games, who is also a big help.

“I used to play in central midfield when I was younger but, when I came to Celtic at first, I filled in at right-back in an under-19 match and it has gone from there. It’s not easy to get into the first team, with both Mikael and Adam obviously both top international players at right-back. It inspires me, because I can learn from them. But I’ll just keep plugging away and look to take my chances whenever they come along.”