There is a point where a team that has enjoyed the perceived virtue of selection consistency begins to fear the selfsame as a vice; the point where a side experiences the shift from being battle-hardened to battle-weary. Celtic seem to be sliding in that direction. Brendan Rodgers hasn’t been reiterating the need for three signings before the window closes next week because he wants to stockpile players.
Celtic have lost three of their last seven Scottish Premiership games, but the last time they lost to tomorrow’s visitors was back in 2014, when Hamilton Accies beat them 1-0.
The Irishman spoke this week of the need to stimulate competition to push players through having rivals for their positions. Unable to do so with external augmentation, this week he attempted that by selecting Mikey Johnston for a European debut in Thursday’s 1-1 draw away to Suduva. The decision to select the 19-year-old on the left for the Europa League play-off meant he was picked ahead of the increasingly erratic Scott Sinclair. The goal assist the teenager provided suggested he is battle-ready.
Scotland under-21 manager Scot Gemmill has long had no doubt that the wide player would make this progress. He believes this season is shaping up to be critical for the player and his club in unlocking the potential he has long witnessed. Johnston collected a trophy for being adjudged the third best player in the Toulon U-21 tournament in the summer, and was also named in the team of the tournament after gleaning rave notices for a majestic solo goal in the 3-1 semi-final defeat by England.
Called up this week for the forthcoming European Championship qualifiers at home to Andorra and away to the Netherlands, the youngster is now being presented with major opportunities to make good on his long-shown promise.
“It’s not a surprise to any of us that have seen him at close quarters. Mikey is a really interesting story that’s unfolding,” said Gemmill. “He’s had to wait for his opportunity. If you trace him back over a couple of years, there was a time when he wasn’t consistently playing for the Celtic 20s because they felt he wasn’t quite ready in terms of strength and physicality to cope with the demands.
“If you trace him back a bit further, there was even a stage where he was playing underage, that’s obviously going way back, but during that period we knew it was just time, time, time.
“Mikey deserves enormous credit for handling that situation. As a young player, when you undoubtedly have that ability, the frustration he must have had, not only with his club but with the national youth teams as well. There were times where he wasn’t selected for the national youth teams, whether it was 19s, 17s. To really handle that disappointment and frustration and really come to the fore now. He did really well in Toulon, the award that he won, and now his manager is trusting him to be involved with the first-team. Hopefully he’s getting a reward for handling that delayed wait because it can’t be easy for a young player who is so obviously talented to keep waiting.”
It remains early days for Johnston, but it appears as if he is in position to avoid becoming one of those “might-have-been” talked-up talents Scotland has produced all too often.
“There is always that risk at such a huge club with such a huge capacity to buy players from around the world but there is a brilliant example that had already established himself in the team in Kieran Tierney. It shows it’s possible but it’s difficult, and Mikey has a huge push still to happen and I am sure his club are encouraging him to take that opportunity,” Gemmill added.
“He’s just starting to be with the first-team and making appearances is only the beginning. The real hard work is still in front of him to really go and maximise his potential.”
To do that he requires to improve on an aspect of his game that was as much a takeaway from the England defeat as his corking strike.
“I have spoken to him about how he needs to be trusted out of possession,” said Gemmill. “His team need to know he’s willing and able to do that. He’s got the ability to influence the game, with his unbelievable technical ability with the ball to beat an opponent, which is not common – that skill is rarer and rarer – it’s an unbelievable skill to be able to beat your man, one v one, and Mikey can do that.”