Everyone’s favourite spouter of shite, Andy Townsend, recently threw his voice into the growing choir of folk who are of the opinion that scoring goals in Scotland is easy. Referencing Sunderland’s Jermaine Defoe, the hapless commentator said, “Jermain will score when he’s 45 if he went up to Celtic.” The evidence, of course, points to the contrary.
If it is truly as easy to plunder goals north of the border as Townsend thinks it is, then Celtic would have a litany of strikers who will have shattered goal scoring records. The truth is that Celtic have found consistency in their strikers extremely hard to come by, especially since the departure from the Sutton, Hartson and Larsson era.
Gordon Strachan recruited competent if uninspiring frontmen like Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Scott MacDonald and Maciej Żurawski, but ‘Wee Gordon’ also hired his fair share of duds, most notably, Jeremie Aliadiere, Derek Riordan, Chris Killen and Ben Hutchinson.
The Neil Lennon era proved equally erratic, Gary Hooper was a tremendous piece of business and will be fondly remembered. Leigh Griffiths overturned a muted beginning to life at Celtic Park and remains a player of considerable quality. Antony Stokes at times threatened to evolve into a decent striker but was always lacking facets in his game to take him to the required level. Lennon also has more flops than I care to mention, so I will condense his list to the three most egregious signings; Teemu Pukki, Amido Balde and Mohamed Bangura.
Not to be outdone, Ronny Deila would up the stakes and try his luck at claiming to have signing Celtic’s worst ever striker. His contenders are Colin Kazim-Richards, Stefan Scepovic and Carlton Cole.
It is hard to think of a club of comparable size to Celtic that have had similar misfortunes in recruiting players to lead the line. So, when we are treated to a player of the level of Moussa Dembele, it is not a sight that is passed without enjoyment.
The Frenchman has exceeded all expectations of him. Top scorer in the league with 17 goals. Scorer in every game he played in the League Cup, including the a late backheeled effort in the semi-final against Rangers and a composed penalty in the final against Aberdeen.
What has made Dembele such a fan favourite in such a short period of time is his record in the Glasgow derbies. 5 goals from 4 games is terrific. The perfect hatrick in the 5-1 victory (the first league treble against Rangers since Steve Chalmers in 1966) will alone crystallise him as a cult hero.
The true barometer for Celtic players has always been European football, and if we are honest Dembele has performed well in that arena too. The last-minute penalty against Astana has been well documented but his second half header in the qualifying game against Hapoel Beer Sheva was a moment that went by with minimal notice, yet in hindsight it was pivotal in Celtic’s season. The goal calmed the entire stadium, put Celtic in the driving seat for the tie, and helped guarantee Champions League football. The return to football’s top table injected the club with a much-needed degree of confidence, something that has proved to be pivotal in the club’s search for domestic invincibility.
In the tournament, proper Dembele acquitted himself well, with the only real blemish on his copy book being the penalty miss in the 7-0 defeat at Barcelona.
Such rampant displays have seen Dembele linked to the Premier League in proposed moves valued as high as £30million. If such a deal were to materialise, what should the club do?
In the past, the Celtic hierarchy would have looked like Looney Toons characters, complete with Dollar signs for eyes, if such a deal was even whispered. Fortunately, you get the impression that times are changing. Manager Brendan Rodgers wields more authority than any manager since Martin O’Neill and the feeling that he can extract one more year from Dembele is palpable. While it makes perfectly legitimate business sense to cash in on Dembele, it could very well hurt the souls of fans. Selling Virgil van Dijk, Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama all make sense when analysing the deals from a spreadsheet, but it leaves holes in both the club and the hearts of fans that have been difficult to fill.
Every time you see one of the former Hoops turn out a man of the match performance, you are imbibed with mixed emotions. One the one hand you feel proud, indeed gratified, that a player who was once doused with scorn because he played in Scotland is more than a match for the Premier League’s galaxy of stars. On the other hand, however, is the panging sense of loss. The unfriendly reminder that for top players to showcase their talents, they will inevitably have to leave Celtic Park. They serve as an unwelcome reminder that from a financial standpoint, the game has moved on, and left us behind, like a child left stranded on his porch by a want-away-father.
If Celtic were able to bat away the Summer’s upcoming bids, it would fill the entire club with a rejuvenated sense of optimism. It would also serve two further needs. Firstly, would be the improved chances of making it into the Champions League group stages and perhaps enjoying European football post-Christmas, raking in the tens of millions that, that journey offers. Secondly, would be the welcome message that Celtic, while still obviously still a selling club, are not some tawdry market where you can pick up hidden treasures for a fraction of their true value.
Besides, I do not think that Dembele is ready for a move. He needs another year as an undisputed starter, another year testing himself in continental football and another year to iron out the creases that still blight his game. We all think the world of the youngster, but it is important to highlight the areas in which he can still improve. Most glaring is his propensity to drop deep in an effort to influence play. Whilst his willingness to contribute and help link play is admirable, at times it over congests the centre of the park with no identifiable out-ball. Sometimes, for an elite striker, less is more.
Consistency is another area in which he may consider for refinement, although that may just be the case that he has strung three poor performances together recently and this feeling has been exacerbated. Another year at Celtic may also see him break into the senior French squad, although this will require a Herculean effort. Griezmann, Giroud, Benzema, Lacazette, Mbappé, Martial, Gameiro and Modeste all stand, blocking his path. If he is awarded a senior cap, it will only add to his burgeoning price tag.
It is important to remember that moneyed clubs are not touting a king’s ransom for the player he is. Multi-million pound bids are imminent for the player he can become. It is scary to look at the work Dembele has done and realise that he has only just left his teenage years. The home tie against Manchester City stands out. In the 3-3 draw Dembele bullied Clichy, Zabaleta, Kolarov and Otamendi, a defensive unit bought for around £58million and one that had amassed a combined total of 187 international caps. There are a handful of players on the planet capable of putting in that kind of performance.
Selling Dembele for the proposed fortunes, added to any and all potential European earnings, could provide Rodgers the means and impetus required to keep him in the Celtic Park dugout for the foreseeable future. It would be impossible to hire a player of Dembele’s talent for less than the fee received, but if Rodgers astutely goes about rebuilding the squad in the manner we know he is capable of, then the club may be left in a seriously strong position.
We all know that Dembele is destined for the very top, it’s just a shame that Celtic will not be the outlet for his journey. All we can hope is that the board are shrewd enough to bide their time and get a deal in place that will allow the club to implement a dynasty that forever plant Celtic at the summit of Scottish Football.