When Gordon Strachan was drafted in to replace the outgoing Martin O’Neill, two things were made abundantly clear; players that had amassed a huge amount of fan loyalty and respect would no longer be adhered to with quite so much deference and the often utilised 3-5-2 formation would be swiftly discarded. This reversion back to the much more common 4-4-2 signalled the need for something that had not been required for a number of years – conventional fullbacks. This proved to be an area of concern for what seemed an eternity. The right-hand side proved to be the more stable of the two with players like Marc Wilson, Andreas Hinkel, Adam Matthews and more recently Mikael Lustig all deputising to great effect. The left-hand side, however, proved much more problematic (with the exception of Lee Naylor); a revolving door of Ross Wallace, Mo Camara and Danny Fox all came and went without creating a seismic impact. Things degenerated so much that by the time Neil Lennon’s tenure begun, the criminally underrated Joe Ledley, a box-to-box midfielder, was often forced to deputise.
This perpetual woe was finally broken on the 18th August 2010, with the acquisition of one Emilio Arturo Izaguirre Girón – Izzy to you and me. The decision to spend the modest fee of just £580,000, on the back of the 2010 World Cup, will go down as one of the shrewdest pieces of business conducted by the club in recent years. The Honduran’s debut campaign was a sight to behold. At times Izaguirre managed to singlehandedly occupy the entire flank through a combination of athleticism, aggression, intelligence and technical prowess. Domestically at least, it was not fanciful to make comparisons with Barcelona’s Dani Alves
Shining brightest in a team that at times illuminated the country, Izzy, and his teammates were to be left aghast as their 92 points would only be good enough to secure a runners-up berth. Winning both the PFA and SFWA player of the year would have provided scant consolidation for the compact fullback. Despite the demoralising conclusion to the league season, many fans were imbibed with a renewed sense of optimism; Fraser Forster was a soothing presence in goal, Scott Brown was maturing in his role as captain, a midfield of Ledley and Ki was as cultured as it was strong, while Gary Hooper plundered the net with a reckless abandon. Despite all this, it was the presence of Izaguirre that stoked the embers of hope the most. This was a feeling exacerbated by the continuous rumours linking him with a big money move south of the border –Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool reported to be the most smitten of admirers. The ability to hold on to such a gifted player was just as uplifting as the team’s performances.
Sadly, Izaguirre would suffer a nasty fractured ankle in the 1-0 win over Aberdeen in the embryonic stage of the 2011-12 season. In the Honduran’s absence, the Hoops struggled, at one point trailing Rangers by a 15-point margin. Things deteriorated so badly that Rangers striker Jelavic, referencing the league title in early November, said, “the 12-point lead we have over Celtic should be enough…”.
By the time calendars read 2012 Celtic were sitting pretty atop the league table. Neil Lennon’s men went on to win the league, with the Honduran making a welcome return, to deafening cries of “tainted title” that were as numerous as they were off the mark, following the SFA’s decision to deduct points from Rangers following their liquidation.
The following season proved to be one to remember; winning a league and cup double and making the wholly unexpected voyage into the last 16 of the Champions League. Izzy formed an unshakable pairing with Charlie Mulgrew down Celtic’s left-hand side. Izaguirre’s dynamism made up for the deficiencies in Mulgrew’s game, whilst also allowing the rangy utility man to tuck inside and bolster the midfield. It was a ploy that was routinely effective as the Hoops racked up an astounding 10 points.
When you go to see a Denzel Washington film you know exactly what you are going to get, dependable, high-calibre, no-frills action. And for the latter half of Izzy’s time at Celtic this is what we have come to expect from the Honduran. Despite racking up over 200 appearances for the club and winning a combined 9 trophies, it may prove to be the case that Izaguirre is remembered as much for his off-field contributions as any of his on-field ones. The instructive hand he has placed on the shoulder of the prodigious young Kieran Tierney will no doubt prove invaluable in helping to mould a player capable of representing the Hoops for the best part of the next two decades.
Tierney has acknowledged the importance of Izaguirre’s advice saying, “He has definitely been one of the most encouraging of the players. When I was just starting to train with the first team last season he took me under his wing, gave me a lot of tips and worked a lot with me on crossing. All that helped me progress.”
Watching Tierney improve exponentially must have been difficult on some level for Izzy, knowing that his own time as the undisputed left-back would be swiftly concluding. As we have seen countless times, with countless players, the prospect of facing your own vocational mortality is something that has driven folk into behaving in less than chivalrous manners. Fortunately for Tierney and the club as a whole, Izzy is made of a stronger moral fibre. Tierney confirmed as much when he said, “He’s a great player, a great guy and has been a good servant to the club”.
The manner in which he has filled in for his injury-stricken replacement this season has demonstrated once and for all just how valuable he has been. Without his presence either a major reshuffling of the pack, or a complete change in philosophy would have been required – something that would have severely smeared the pristine start to Rodgers’ tenure.
As the Bhoys return from Dubai, hopefully fully revitalised and ready to complete the long-desired treble, there are a number of players whose futures remain unclear. Does Nir Bitton have the mobility and mentality to embed himself into the starting 11? Will Eboue deliver on the much-hyped promise? And most intriguing, will Izaguirre commit himself to another Parkhead contract armed with the knowledge that his playing time will be limited?
Rodgers, when pressed if he would like to retain both of the talented left-backs, said, “That’s the idea. We need to have the competition. We have one with experience and one with youthfulness. So, it is the perfect balance. “
Personally, I would love to see Izaguirre commit to one more contract extension. The task of finding a defender as talented, who is accepting of such a reduced role, would push Celtic’s, admittedly strong, scouting system to its limits. However, should Izzy wish to venture off into distant climes in the attempt to extract every last ounce of a career that is now firmly in its autumnal stage, it would be rather churlish of us to deny him the opportunity. His quality and length of service should guarantee him a warm parting.
Years from now when we reflect on the career of Emilio Izaguirre I would hazard a guess that he would fall into the ‘cult-classic’ category. A lengthy career of pace, technique, astute positional awareness (that has been found wanting in many other defensive recruits) and a real winning mentality, that was protected and perhaps even enhanced with a real aggressive nature, blended to make one of the most consistent performers we have witnessed this decade.
Despite all this, I, and a plethora of other fans out there, will be forever irked by the question; just how good could he have been without that debilitating ankle break?