Manager Brian McLaughlin resisted throwing the player into the fray, something the Celtic Under-20s coaches might now wish they’d done last month.
Instead they sent the player on for a cameo in a Development League fixture v Hearts, ensuring ‘wonderkid’ headlines all across the world. One of the fall-outs of this exposure was a marked increase in the level of interest at the Oriam football centre in Riccarton, where the Victory Shield Under-16s tournament, featuring all the ‘home’ nations except England, is being held.
The outcome of yesterday’s opening fixture was always likely to be over-shadowed by Dembele, whether or not he took to the pristine Astroturf.
Scotland’s ambitions of winning a trophy they have lifted 17 times in total were boosted by a comfortable 2-0 victory, the goals coming from Hamilton’s Taylor Wilson and substitute Zac Butterworth, from Rangers. Scotland have two further games to play this week, against Wales tomorrow and Republic of Ireland on Friday, with all games taking place at the same well-appointed venue.
It’s almost certain Dembele will see action in one or both of these fixtures, since to keep him sidelined throughout risks alienating a player the Scottish Football Association is trying to court.
But it wasn’t only Dembele who was left on the bench yesterday. Although rules permit unlimited substitutions, McLaughlin chose to make only four. Seven others were left kicking their heels like Dembele. But only one’s situation commanded widespread interest.
There remain fears Dembele could be poached from the Scotland set-up by England. The teenager, who was born in London, trained with England Under-15s at their St George’s Park academy last week, just days after being named in the Scotland Under-16s Victory Shield squad.
SFA chief executive Stewart Regan last week stressed everything will be done to ensure such a promising player commits to Scotland.
But manager McLaughlin, speaking after yesterday’s game, has advised everyone to “relax”. The SFA is treading the tricky path of seeking to demonstrate to Dembele, and his family, how much it values him while also ensuring he is protected from the natural media interest.
“We just need to relax and encourage,” said McLaughlin. “These young boys are all at good clubs. There are some fantastic coaches at Celtic and Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, whoever. They have been in this [situation] before; they will look after any young boy.”
So what happened yesterday was possibly to be expected. Dembele was named on the bench, meaning photographers at least got their photos of the 13-year-old in a Scotland shirt as he warmed up before kick-off. But those attracted by the prospect of seeing such an exciting young talent take to the field had their hopes dashed.
Flying slightly in the face of the SFA’s anxiety about pressurising the teenager was the number he’d been handed. Dembele wore the iconic No 7 shirt, which is forever associated with one of Scotland’s greatest players, Kenny Dalglish. But even Dalglish didn’t have to cope with this fuss at such a young age.
As Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, who is rapidly wearying of the media glare fixed on Dembele, noted recently; it’s not as if he is physically mature for his age. Which is one reason why McLaughlin kept the midfielder out of yesterday’s encounter, which became a notably more rugged contest after half-time.
“Every decision we make on any player here, it’s with the player in mind,” said McLaughlin, a former Celtic winger. “We’d never bring anyone into the squad, or anyone on to the pitch, if we don’t think we can help the young player. We just felt today the team was doing OK. Northern Ireland had changed their tactics and were more aggressive, so we were just taking care of the player.”
So the pre-match warm-up was the extent to which Dembele was allowed to show off his ball skills. Helping illustrate the extreme height difference within the squad was the presence of Aaron Pressley, son of former Hearts and Scotland defender Steven Pressley. The Aston Villa striker is comfortably 6ft and dwarfed Dembele in the kickabout.
Pressley, whose father was in the crowd, came on up front late in the game, by which point Scotland were two goals up. The hosts, inspired by Rangers midfielder Billy Gilmour, were nearly always in control, going ahead after 19 minutes – the games are all 40 minutes each way – when Dean Campbell’s cross was turned in at the far post by Wilson.
But it was a more competitive second half as Northern Ireland, watched by Edinburgh-based national team manager Michael O’Neill, upped the ante. But a second goal with five minutes left from Butterworth, who finished well into the far corner after bursting through the Northern Irish defence, sealed Scotland’s win.
McLaughlin revealed there will be changes for tomorrow’s clash v Wales, which kicks off at 4pm, meaning Dembele is very much on stand-by.
“They have worked really hard today,” said McLaughlin. “But as soon as we go back to the hotel we start preparing. They are very professional these young boys, again it’s brilliant on the clubs how professional these young players are. Tomorrow we will have a look at who has knocks. But yes, we will make changes.”
In the later game yesterday evening, a strong-looking Republic of Ireland defeated Wales 4-0.