Celtic F.C.’s title run last season spawned plenty of good talking points. Say what you will about the depth of quality in the Scottish Premier League — an undefeated season in any top-tier competition is remarkable. Brendan Rodgers nurtured the same electric, relentless attack he brought to Liverpool’s 2013/14 title challenge, to the tune of 106 goals scored across 38 games, with the Hoops conceding just 25. It was a comprehensive effort from August through May, but there was one distinct thread that further paralleled Rodger’s fabled run with the Reds — that of a hard-working, humble, local lad who took the left-back position and made it his own. Enter 19-year-old Kieran Tierney.
Of all the storylines in Liverpool’s memorable title challenge of 2013/14, few resonated more with Liverpudlians than the rise of left-back Jon Flanagan. It meant the world to have a local lad (not named Stevie) help propel the squad back toward the top of the Premier League after years of mediocrity — that the “Scouse Cafu” was such a humble, unassuming character was just an added bonus. Much of the credit for Flanagan’s success should fall to Rodgers and his willingness to show faith in the hard-working, relatively unproven 19-year-old.
In Tierney, Rodgers has inherited a true gem that many would argue has a far greater ceiling than Flanagan, injuries notwithstanding. He’s garnered attention from across Europe, including the Premier League, after several eye-catching performances across the past two seasons.
Whether Tierney remains in Glasgow is yet to be seen, but wherever he ends up, he’s staked a definite claim as one to watch going forward.
I did a quick Q&A on all things Tierney with Harry Brady, author, podcaster, and green & white guru for The Celtic Underground.
– Let’s start with Kieran Tierney as a player. What would you describe as his strengths and weaknesses?
As Celtic fans we are well used to attacking full backs. Our 1967 European Cup win was famous for the opening goal from left back Tommy Gemmill after receiving a pass from right back Craig. Following on from then we had Danny McGrain who, during the 1970’s, was considered the best right back in the game. Consequently, I grew up just assuming that full backs operated by-line to by-line and were excellent crossers of the ball. KT follows in that tradition. He has the engine to run the full length of the pitch and has excellent pace. As expected from Celtic fans and from all modern coaches playing attacking football, he is an excellent crosser of the ball. The confidence the Celtic coaching staff have in him is that we have on occasions (and regularly in games) moved towards a back three. When we’ve started games as a back four switching to a three, he has moved up to become a more attacking force; however, we have also started games with a three at the back where he has been played in that starting back three.
If he has a weakness, it would be that he is still stronger on his left foot than his right and therefore, when attacking, is less likely to throw a cross in if he needs to cut back onto his left.
– What were the biggest factors in Tierney breaking through to the first team, then securing that spot in the past few seasons?
I recall the season before KT broke into the team being at a fans forum. Then manager Ronny Deila was asked about prospects in the youth system “we have a young left back Kieran Tierney – “he can be as good as he wants to be”. He replaced Honduran left back Emilio Izaguirre. Izzy is also fondly regarded by the fans, but we were aware of his deficiencies, specifically when attacking. He could often be caught out when the opposition counter attacked. The management and coaches seem to have been ready for him breaking through. He made his debut at the end of the 2014/15 season, coming on in a game for last 10 mins. He then played a full 90 mins. These games were after the title was won and during the following season (2015/16) he cemented himself as a first team starter.
– This season was obviously a pretty remarkable season for Celtic as a whole — how influential was Tierney in the title run/undefeated season?
KT was an influential part of the defense. Whilst Brendan switched about the centre half’s to get his ideal pairing (settling on Simunovic and Boyatta by the second half of the campaign) the full backs (Lustig & Tierney) were pretty much inked in as part of his preferred first 11. He struck up a great working relationship with Scott Sinclair down Celtic’s left, with Sinclair cutting in for goal and Tierney overlapping down the left. It should also be pointed out that Tierney missed three months of the season with a broken ankle. Sometimes a break can really hinder the progression of a young player coming into the side, but Tierney immediately slotted back after injury as though he’d never been away (although his miss was not as great due to Scotland having a winter break in January).
– Given how dominant Celtic were domestically, it’s worth looking at they fared in the Champions League. How would you rate Tierney’s performance in the UCL group stage? Does he have the tools to play at that level?
Celtic were ahead of schedule in their qualification. By that I mean that Brendan was expecting that we may fail at the final hurdle and drop into Europa League, so playing Champions League football and then drawing that group resulted in quite a challenge for the club. The team coped well. Tierney (along with the whole team) really struggled in Barcelona but his goal v Man City and that draw when everyone expected another heavy defeat lifted the whole squad and gave them confidence that we could play at that level. Tierney certainly can. He has pace, strength and game intelligence.
– Where do you see his ceiling as a player? Do you think he can achieve his potential at Celtic or would a move elsewhere benefit him?
I think all players and coaches benefit from playing in different leagues and facing new and different challenges. I find it disappointing that more British based players don’t try playing oversees. Good players develop playing with better players. If he is going to move on, I wouldn’t like to see his talent wasted by going to a mid table EPL team. If he moves on, he has the ability to play at the highest levels and I would like to think he would go to a team that suited his style as an attacking full back and therefore a team that plays on the front foot.
– As a person, Tierney seems to be universally loved by the Celtic fans. Tell me a bit more about how he became such a beloved figure.
Kieran is a Celtic fan. He grew up in Wishaw, where famous Celtic left back Tommy Gemmill is from. He joined Celtic at age seven and (there is a) famous picture of him as a ball boy with Izzy, the man he replaced as left back! He’s one of us! That is why he’s loved, he’s one of us who’s ended up wearing the jersey and has never let us down.
– Do you see Tierney staying at Celtic through the summer? Beyond?
I really hope KT stays for another season at least; however, if a club comes in and offers him the silly wages on offer at EPL level, who could turn that down? He’ll probably be on somewhere between £5k and £10k a week at Celtic. Our top earners are on £32k a week, so if an Arsenal, Man United etc. come in at £80k + a week, he’d be mad to turn that down. I just hope we get best market value. We’ll not get what he could achieve (Van Dijk at £80 shows we sold him far too cheap) but I wouldn’t accept a bid below £15m – £20m