From the 1950s until the mid-80s, Celtic had a conveyor belt of outstanding young talents that graduated to its first team. This included some of the Lisbon Lions (e.g. Johnstone, Murdoch, Auld, and Lennox) and Quality Street Gang members (Dalglish, McGrain, Hay, Connelly etc.). Later on, the likes of Burns, Aitken, Nicholas and McStay all emerged from the youth system to becoming first team stars.
However by the 1990s, this production line came to a grinding halt! A few players looked promising, including Gerry Creaney, Steve Fulton, Mark McNally, Stuart Kerr, Brian McLaughlin and Mark Burchill, but they failed to make the grade at Celtic long term. Simon Donnelly (and to an extent, Brian O’Neil) was the only real success during the decade, albeit he was nowhere near the level of those that came before him.
In the late 90s/early 2000s, opportunities for younger players became very limited as the club was able and willing to sign foreign players for big money. However, as Scottish football struggled to compete with the finances available in the English Premiership and other big European leagues, it became essential for the club to look to its youth system. This resulted in a greater emphasis and focus on youth development.
Here is Celtic’s best XI to have graduated from its academy since 2000:
Goalkeeper: David Marshall
David Marshall announced his arrival with a stunning performance in a 0-0 draw against Barcelona at Camp Nou in 2004. It appeared that he would remain as Celtic’s number one for the next decade.
However, Marshall was dropped by Gordon Strachan following the calamitous 5-0 defeat against Artmedia Bratislava in 2005. In fairness to him, his defence was non-existent during this humiliation and it was by no means his fault. He was also unfortunate to be in competition with Artur Boruc – Celtic’s best goalkeeper since Ronnie Simpson.
After failing to reclaim the number one spot from Boruc, Marshall left Celtic in 2007. Since he left, Marshall has built a stellar career in England with Norwich City, Cardiff City, Hull City and Wigan Athletic. He has also earned 29 caps for Scotland.
Left Back: Kieran Tierney
Kieran Tierney is the best player to have come through Celtic’s youth system since Paul McStay. After making his first team debut at the age of 18, he played a leading role during the treble-treble. After living the dream of playing for his boyhood idols, Tierney recently made the difficult decision to move to Arsenal for £25m. Whilst this has split the opinion of the Celtic support, no one can deny the lasting impact that he made during his time with the club.
Centre Back: Stephen McManus
In 2007, Stephen McManus became Celtic’s youngest captain since Billy McNeil at the age of 24.
He formed a steady defensive partnership with Gary Caldwell as Gordon Strachan’s side won three league titles in a row between 2005-08. His two greatest moments at Celtic included scoring an injury time winning goal against AC Milan in the Champions League, and captaining the team to an unlikely ‘Title for Tommy’ in 2008. Furthermore, he also earned 26 caps for Scotland.
After ending his career at Motherwell, McManus joined Celtic’s coaching staff.
Centre Back: John Kennedy
John Kennedy is the greatest captain Celtic never had! At the age of 16, he became the youngest ever first team player. His finest moment in a Celtic shirt came at Camp Nou in 2004 when he managed to put the shackles on Ronaldinho’s Barcelona as the Hoops drew 0-0 on the night to send them through 1-0 on aggregate.
Unfortunately, Kennedy’s career was cut short soon afterwards. In a friendly match for Scotland against Romania, a horrific challenge from Ionel Ganea, caused him cruciate knee ligament damage. This injury kept him sidelined for three years.
After a long rehabilitation program, Kennedy made his return to the team. However, in a 2007 Champions League tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, he landed awkwardly on his knee. This led to a recurrence of his injury, and he was eventually forced to retire in 2009 at the age of 26.
Since his retirement, Kennedy has been part of Celtic’s coaching staff. Had it not been for his injury, he could have been one of the club’s all-time greats!
Right Back: Kristoffer Ajer
After Kieran Tierney’s recent £25m move to Arsenal, many fans are now tipping Ajer to either become the next Celtic captain and/or move on for even more money. In recent months he has demonstrated that he is an exceptional talent.
Although he was signed from Norwegian side IK Start at the age of 16, he spent the latter part of his development in Celtic’s academy; therefore he is eligible for selection.
Since breaking into the first team, Ajer has slowly emerged as an excellent central defender. He is strong, quick, reads the game well, has good aerial ability and is a technically gifted footballer. Although he has played centre-back for most of his Celtic career so far, he has demonstrated his versatility to performing well at right back. In the future, he could also play in midfield.
Celtic has produced a few first team players at centre half since 2000 (e.g. McManus, Kennedy and O’Dea) but not too many at right back. Whilst Anthony Ralston has looked promising at times, he has yet to make the position his own. As a result, Ajer takes the right back position.
Hopefully Celtic manages to keep hold of him for a few more years before clubs from the big leagues come calling.
Left Midfield: Aiden McGeady
Aiden McGeady was an extremely skillfull winger that could use both feet. After scoring on his debut away to Hearts in 2004, he became one of Celtic’s star players for the rest of the decade.
McGeady had amazing dribbling skills that bamboozled defenders both in Scotland and in the Champions League. Although he was born in Scotland, he opted to play for the Republic of Ireland – earning 93 caps.
His best season was in 2007/08 when he was named both SPFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year.
Although he was an excellent dribbler, he was often criticised for his final ball, as well as not scoring enough goals.
He was sold to Spartak Moscow for £9.5M in 2010 before moving to Everton in 2014. After loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End, McGeady has played for Sunderland since 2017.
Defensive Midfield: Callum McGregor
Callum McGregor is one of the academy’s biggest success stories. After a successful loan spell at Notts County in 2013/14, he scored the winning goal on his Celtic debut against KR Reykjavik in 2014.
Although he scored in the next two qualifying rounds against Legia Warsaw and Maribor, it took McGregor time to truly establish himself in the eyes of supporters. It is difficult to comprehend now, but around three years ago most people had written off his chances of making it at the club!
However, after starring throughout the club’s treble-treble, ‘C-Mac’ is now one of the first names on the team sheet. In addition, he is quite possibly Celtic’s most important player.
McGregor’s game developed immensely under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers. Until last year, he played more as an attacking midfielder (scoring 12 goals in 2017/18). However, due to his range of passing, ability to orchestrate play and reading of the game, he has evolved into an excellent holding midfielder.
Centre Midfield: Liam Miller
In 2003, Liam Miller burst onto the scene in Champions League games against Lyon and Anderlecht. The latter is probably the best individual performance of any Celtic player in the competition’s history. On a night when he dominated the midfield and scored in a 3-1 victory, many believed that he would go onto be the club’s best midfielder since Paul McStay.
However, it was not meant to be, as a watching Sir Alex Ferguson liked what he saw and signed him for Manchester United on a pre-contract agreement in January 2004. Miller joined the Red Devils on a free in the summer to the dismay of Celtic.
After failing to establish himself at Man United, Miller became a journeyman throughout the rest of his career with spells at Leeds United, Sunderland, QPR, Hibs, as well as several clubs in Australia.
Sadly, Liam Miller passed away in 2018 at the age of just 36!
Right Midfield: James Forrest
James Forrest is the most successful graduate from Celtic’s youth academy this millennium.
After making his first team debut under Tony Mowbray in 2009, Forrest is now in his eleventh season as a senior professional. After scoring recently, he became the first player since Paul McStay to score in 11 consecutive seasons.
In many ways, James Forrest is a throwback to an old fashioned winger that has blistering pace, can beat a man and deliver crosses into the box. Over the past couple of years, he has developed more directness to his game. As a result, he cuts inside more often and has increased his goals tally considerably – scoring 17 in each of the past two seasons (he only scored two in 2015/16).
To date, Forrest has won 17 trophies (including 8 league championships). Last year, he became the first Celtic player to score a hat trick for Scotland since Jimmy Quinn in 1908.
Attacking Midfield: Shaun Maloney
In 2005/06, Shaun Maloney became the first player in Scottish football to win the SPFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year in the same season.
Maloney was a very gifted footballer that could link the play between midfield and attack, and score goals from inside and outside of the box. One of his greatest attributes was his ability to score direct from free kicks.
Looking back, he had quite a stop-start Celtic career and never really fulfilled his potential with the club. After making his debut at Ibrox under Martin O’Neil in 2001, he found it difficult to dislodge Larsson, Hartson and Sutton in attack. Furthermore, he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in February 2004, which kept him out for over a year.
After winning both Player of the Year Awards in 2005/06, Maloney was injured at the start of the following season. With less than a year left on his Celtic contract, he was unable to agree a new deal and moved to Aston Villa in January 2007.
Although he returned to the club in 2008, his second spell with Celtic was blighted by injuries before he moved to Wigan in 2011.
Striker: Tony Watt
Tony Watt is the greatest ‘one goal wonder’ in Celtic’s history. On the club’s 125th anniversary, he scored what proved to be the winning goal against one of the greatest ever club sides – Barcelona. As a result of its sheer magnitude, his place in Celtic’s folklore is secure. Although it is not technically right to select a player on one moment alone, what a moment it was!
Unfortunately, Watt’s inclusion is also largely due to default. Despite scoring this goal, he has done very little since (at Celtic and a range of other clubs) to truly merit inclusion. Although Celtic has produced some very good players (e.g. Tierney, Forrest and McGregor) in certain positions, a decent striker is not one! The only other player that could have rivalled Watt for this position was Craig Beattie.
It is alarming that the last quality centre forward to have emerged from the club’s ranks was Charlie Nicholas way back in the early 1980s. Hopefully, in the years to come Celtic’s Academy will finally produce a decent striker – something it has not done in a very long time!
Jamie Smith, Ross Wallace, Darren O’Dea *, Stephen Crainey, Craig Beattie, Dylan McGeoch, Liam Henderson, Eoghan O’Connell, Anthony Ralston
* Darren O’Dea came very close to making this team. He was a fairly steady defender during his time at Celtic. His best moment came in the 2009 League Cup Final against Rangers when he scored the vital first goal in extra-time; as Celtic went on to win 2-0.
Possible Future Additions (From Current Squad):
Mikey Johnston, Karamoko Dembele, Armstrong Oko-Flex, Ewan Hendersen, Calvin Miller
As Celtic and Scottish football continues to struggle to compete with the finances on offer in European football’s big leagues, it is becoming ever more vital for the club to produce its own players. Last season, Ajax produced a number of homegrown players that helped them to defy the odds by reaching the Champions League Semi-Final.
Celtic has produced a number of talented players in recent years, such as Tierney, Forrest and McGregor. Young winger, Mikey Johnston is also emerging as a first team regular after putting in some impressive displays. Other potential stars that will emerge in the coming years, include Karamoko Dembele and Armstrong Oko-Flex.
One of the few advantages that Celtic has over wealthy clubs in England, is providing a more accessible route to the first team for young players. Its record in recent years has been fairly impressive in that department.
In the near future, expect more players to emerge from Celtic’s Academy. Some of them will remain at the club long term like Forrest, whilst others will eventually move on for big money (e.g. Tierney). It is essential that the club does all it can to produce future stars in today’s challenging financial football landscape.
By Mark Nicholas