For days, weeks and even months, Celtic fans have pleaded with the club to bring Patrick Roberts back to Celtic Park. Pleaded with the player himself to return north.
His name was chanted as the season started, fans took to social media to bombard the Englishman with messages. On Monday’s BBC Sportsound Tom English jokingly called the fans’ “lovebombing...indecent”, such was the furore, the devotion. Even Celtic players themselves were urging the player to make the move, even if it was simply to make Kieran Tierney feel better.
Speculation increased in recent weeks with fans told it will definitely happen. But they have had to try and wait patiently for confirmation to come. Just after 6pm on Monday it was finally announced as Celtic released a video on their Twitter channel with Roberts, who the club toe-curlingly referred to as PR7, standing next to Tierney’s shirt in Celtic Park before turning to the camera and saying ‘guess who’s back?’.
While Celtic fans celebrated and Tierney rejoiced, the rest of Scottish football released a collective groan. This was another star performer arriving at the club, one which is already well-versed in Scottish football, there would be no adjustment period, no shock-factor. For 18 months, he suffered kicks and bruises, the rough and tumble. Survived and thrived.
Domestically Celtic were already operating in a different stratosphere, even if they currently trail Aberdeen by two points. Roberts returning, to compete with Scott Sinclair, James Forrest and Jonny Hayes in the wide areas, lifts them into a different galaxy.
Sinclair is the best player in the league. But Roberts is more talented, a player who has the potential to reach a higher level than Sinclair, offer greater career consistency. The 20-year-old has that x-factor which opens up teams, simultaneously opening up fans’ mouths as they look on in amazement, whether it is a drop of the shoulder, shifting the ball quickly between his feet or an impudent nutmeg.
It is therefore understandable why Celtic fans’ “lovebombing” may have been “indecent”. This is a player who makes it worthwhile to go to a game on a freezing cold December afternoon, when the pitch is cut up and the ball moves a bit slower.
In the grand scheme of the season Roberts won’t make a difference domestically. There will be individual games where he will, but in the bigger picture his signing is not the difference between winning and losing the league. If he were to play solely in Europe Celtic would still win the league.
The biggest difference Roberts could make is on the continental stage.
Celtic qualifying from their Champions League group, ahead of either Bayern Munich or Paris St Germain, is a similarly mammoth and improbable task as Aberdeen winning the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Key to that coming to anywhere near fruition is six fantastic defensive displays, a whole lot of luck and then a bit of magic. Magic which Roberts can provide. But to say he is the difference between qualifying for the knockout stages and not is unrealistic. After all, this is a player who started only twice in the group stages last season, scoring a wonderful solo goal against Manchester City. But in the main is effect was minimal, with defensive balance paramount.
Twelve months on, it is hard to see a lot changing against the might of Bayern and PSG. This is not to denigrate Celtic or Scottish football, it is simply realism. The monetary advantage those clubs have over Celtic is even greater than Celtic’s over the rest of Scottish football. It was previously mentioned Celtic operating in a different galaxy from Rangers, Aberdeen et al. The European elite are playing in their own fantasy land. The likes of Celtic and Anderlecht can only dream of entering that realm.
The reason it is hard to see Roberts becoming an automatic starter, the way Sinclair is, on these massive European nights is down to the system. Rodgers, with his full squad available, appears to have settled on a hybrid 4-4-1-1/3-4-2-1 system in big matches, giving his side balance and solidity with and without the ball - Olivier Ntcham proving a key recruit in the centre of midfield.
Out of possession the team has two banks of four with Tom Rogic playing behind Leigh Griffiths. As soon as possession is won Tierney moves high on the left and Sinclair shifts inside to become a second number 10 alongside Rogic. It is difficult to see where Roberts, who is at his best playing from the right fits in to that system, unless he takes up the Australian’s position. It may be that he will become a very useful, exciting and talented impact player in these six games.
While there is always hope Celtic do pull off a shock. After all, being a football fan is nothing without hope. Celtic fans will be pinpointing the games against Anderlecht as the important fixtures to make sure there is European football after the new year.
In the Europa League they will find a mix of teams who are either on their level or the level they aspire to. And there is no reason why Rodgers’ men can’t go deep in that competition, especially with a kind draw. This is where Roberts can come to the fore. There is more scope playing with a greater attacking intent.
Another 12 months working under Rodgers will see Roberts improve without the ball and in his positioning. He will become a more refined player, one who could be trusted to play in different positions in the biggest matches.
He may not be the key to Celtic shocking European football by finishing ahead of PSG or Bayern Munich, but he could be key in helping the Hoops imitate Martin O’Neill’s men who went all the way to Seville. But in between times, he will thrill the Celtic fans who pleaded with him to return.