Joe Miller knows how it feels to be looked upon as Scottish football’s hottest property. Celtic’s capture from Aberdeen of the then 19-year-old striker was interpreted as a statement of intent, particularly since they were joined in the race to sign Miller by Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs.
When he made his debut, 29 years ago last week, Celtic Park was in ferment. Miller responded to the adulation by scoring in a 5-0 win over Dundee and helped his new team claim the double in their centenary season.
So when he considers Moussa Dembele’s situation, and whether the French striker can fulfill his ambitions with Celtic, he does so from a position of some authority.
Miller left Aberdeen for Celtic for £650,000 – a record fee paid for a Scottish teenager. He was an east end of Glasgow boy and so needed little persuasion to swap Aberdeen, where he had made his debut aged just 16, for Billy McNeill’s Celtic.
As well as the double in his first season, he scored a Scottish Cup final winner against Rangers in 1989. While the emotional pull of joining Celtic was clearly a factor, Miller’s career benefited from the move since he won a league title, as well as two Scottish Cups, while also commanding a larger salary. He quickly realised Celtic was a place where his ambitions could be fulfilled.
So Miller’s advice is for Dembele to stay put for the time being before exploring new horizons elsewhere. As he found, the Parkhead club can deliver everything a young player needs – and more.
The question of Dembele’s future is also reliant on Celtic being able to resist interest from elsewhere for the striker. But there aren’t many places in European football where, in one week in November, a 20-year-old footballer still making his way in the game can enjoy taking part in a Champions League clash v Barcelona in front of 60,000 and then, four days later, relish the chance to win a first major honour in front over 50,000, when Celtic take on Aberdeen in Sunday’s League Cup final.
“It works both ways,” pondered Miller yesterday. “Celtic need players like him to compete in Europe and it’s why fans pay their season tickets, to see guys like him.
“They also understand that in the current climate, players do need to be sold for a profit. But I don’t see why Celtic can’t hold on to him just now. They are financially healthy, have good players and a good manager in Brendan Rodgers.”
“This is a great platform for Dembele,” he continued. “Celtic are developing under a young manager and it’s going to be exciting for the next few years. Sometimes you can leave too early. You can go to a bigger league for bigger money and what you think is a bigger club. But it doesn’t always work out. That would be my warning to him. You see some young players going for more money to a league that’s too big for them.”
Miller noted how Celtic’s return to expansive football under Rodgers suits a player like Dembele.
“If you compare this season to the previous two it’s night and day,” said Miller. “The style of football played by Celtic is going back to the old cavalier approach when it was all about scoring as many goals as you possibly could.
“That’s the way Celtic played when I was at the club. Billy McNeill used to tell us to go at teams, press the ball and make sure we got it back as quickly as possible, and create as many chances as possible.”
As well as well scoring twice for France Under 21s against England earlier this month, Dembele has scored 16 goals already for his club this season. He would have had one more had he not missed from the spot against Barcelona in September. The striker has the opportunity to atone for failing to make it 1-1 in the Nou Camp against the same opponents tomorrow, when Celtic supporters will lap up another huge European occasion.
“He’s only 20,” added Miller. “He has a lot to learn. Stay at Celtic for a few years and pick up experience. Dembele is playing in front of 60,000 in the Champions League, he’s scoring goals and playing in cup finals.
“He is only going to get better. That’s how Henrik Larsson made his name. He played in a top Celtic side in the Champions League and achieved so much.
“Dembele is the real deal. He can go on and become whatever he wants in the game.
“He wants to become one of the world’s best strikers and he has the perfect platform at Celtic. It’s down to him. Celtic is a fantastic showcase for him by winning trophies and playing in Europe. There is no better club for Dembele right now.”
Miller admits he is slightly torn when he considers Sunday’s cup final, which pitches Aberdeen, where he returned to play for a second spell, against Celtic, the club he always supported. It wouldn’t sadden him if Aberdeen claimed only their second cup win since he helped them lift the League Cup against Dundee 21 years ago.
“My heart lies with Celtic,” he said. “But at the same time I have a soft spot for Aberdeen because I started my career there and went back there. But I also managed to win cups with Aberdeen – I had a bit of success with both clubs.”
“Aberdeen will fancy themselves, because they do well against Celtic,” he added. “This is always the case.
“Even when I went back to the club, I always felt when the Glasgow sides came up to Aberdeen the boys in the Aberdeen dressing room always lifted themselves, as if it was a platform to play on.
“It was a wee bit of an indictment because against some of the other teams in the league sometimes they could be sloppy. We could do well against Rangers and then we went to Stenhousemuir and got beat there. That’s not something you want to remember! You have to be up for every game. But I think the mentality Derek [McInnes] has put together with this group of players, there is a good bond there.”