When you’re a kid, footballers are like superheroes. They’re untouchable, almost God-like. When I think of some of the footballers I idolised when I was younger, that’s exactly the way they are in my mind. Batistuta, Baggio, Möller, Maldini, Schmeichel – they all had a mystical aura about them that, for me, persists to this day.
There are another very special group of footballing superheroes, however. A group that requires its’ own dedicated recognition. This esteemed group are the homegrown heroes. The players who were born and raised supporting the team they go on to play for. They are, in effect, living out the dream of the thousands of fans who watch them every week. Both they and the supporters know it – and it creates an unbreakable, unshakable unspoken bond between the player and his loyal followers.
The homegrown hero is perhaps no more valued at any club in world football than at my own – Glasgow Celtic. It’s a well-known part of Scottish football folklore that the Bhoys became European champions back in 1967 using a squad made of players almost exclusively born within a 30-mile radius of the club’s Parkhead home.
It’s 50 years since Celtic brought the European Cup back to British shores for the first time in history. That victory continued a tradition of homegrown talent being at the forefront of the club’s success. It is a virtue both the club and supporters agree is a vital part of the way the club works and it has always ensured the fans feel close to the players on the pitch. Look at the Lisbon Lions and and throughout Celtic’s history and you’ll see numerous examples. Jimmy Johnstone, Tommy Burns, Peter Grant and Tom Boyd are just a few names who made the switch from the terraces and onto the pitch, pulling on the famous green and white hoops that we all dream of wearing.
My brother’s particular favourite is Paul McStay. Seriously – I know that if he’s reading this, the mere sight of the name McStay in black and white will have made his heart leap with joy. I’m not sure I love anything as much as my brother loves Paul McStay. The Maestro, as he was dubbed, was the ultimate box-to-box midfielder. His rangy stride was matched with a dynamism that made him as much of a goal threat as anyone in his position in European football. It’s arguable he had the kind of career at his boyhood heroes that Celtic fans dream of – over 650 appearances, 72 goals and three league titles, as well as four Scottish Cups and one League Cup. McStay couldn’t have won much more in the Scottish game and stayed with the club through some of it’s toughest lows in the early 1990s, when the club was on the verge of financial ruin. It wasn’t just his immense ability on the field, but his unshakeable loyalty off it, that ensured he carved a place in the hearts of the faithful he remains a part of to this day. It’s rumoured he even turned down moves to more glamorous sides in Europe – Juventus and Inter Milan were thought to be heavily interested – but he never did leave the East End of Glasgow.Embed from Getty Images
Paul McStay, perhaps Celtic’s last true homegrown hero – and my brother’s favourite
McStay eventually retired in 1997, plagued by an ankle injury that dogged the last few years of his career. I was only 9 years old at the time and, although, vaguely aware of McStay’s impact at the club, it would be unfair of me to say he was ever as much my hero as he was my brother’s. I did go on to have idols of my own at the club but, as was the fashion of the growing game over the late ’90s and early 2000s, most of my heroes were foreign imports. Jorge Cadete, Paolo Di Canio, Stylian Petrov and Henrik Larsson were my Celtic superheroes growing up. But I’m sad to say that, in the 20 years since McStay retired, there’s been a dearth of homegrown talent who have gone on to make an impact in the Celtic team. I never felt that special bond between supporter and player that says “I’m doing this for both of us, because I know you’d love to be here and I know how lucky I am to be.”
That’s all changed in the past two seasons, however. Celtic, and the kids watching them, have a new homegrown hero to idolise. That one player who you know is aware of exactly who he’s playing for and what it means. That man is current first-choice left back Kieran Tierney. Though born in the Isle of Man, Tierney moved with his family to Wishaw in Lanarkshire aged 10 months, and has been a die-hard fan of the Hoops ever since.
Making his debut for the club in August 2014 in a friendly against Tottenham Hotspur, the young Scot described it as a dream come true. “I can’t explain it better than that,” he told Celtic’s website, “but it was also such a shame about the result. I got the phone call a few days ago from Stevie Frail telling me I was flying out and even that was a lot to take in. I didn’t know what to feel, it was just unbelievable. When you’re a wee boy, this is what you dream of. It’s been my life’s ambition to play for Celtic and it’s just happened.”
It’s easy to dismiss the kind of awe described by Tierney as a mere soundbite for the media. We’re used to lots of professionals describing the club they sign for as their boyhood club, sometimes more than once. But there was something so genuine about the way in which Tierney spoke about his heroes that you couldn’t deny the truth behind it. That only became more evident when a video of a young Tierney surfaced online. In it, he was presented with boots from then-Parkhead idol Shunsuke Nakamura. He had been selected by the Japanese free-kick specialist as the best player in the youth team that day and the look of admiration and delight on Tierney’s face at receiving such an accolade is clear for all to see.
What’s perhaps more indicative of Tierney’s bond with the club is his apparent knowledge of it’s history. Left back of the Lisbon Lions, Tommy Gemmell, died in March 2017 and, when commenting on his death, it was clear the loss of one of Celtic’s greatest ever players had affected Tierney as much as it would any supporter.
“Tommy was from around my area,” he told the Daily Record. “He grew up just across the bridge from where I’m from. Everybody around my area is sad about his death. It’s not just Celtic fans, it’s Scottish football fans overall. It just shows how much of a legend he was.” Tierney even gives a glance into how he was brought up with Celtic as a part of him home life, discussing how Gemmell and the Celtic history was a part of the conversation at home. “I grew up listening to my dad and others in my family talking about Tommy and it meant a lot to me as he was a left-back,” he continued. “When you think about what he did for the club and the goals he scored as a full-back, it’s amazing.”
Despite making his first team debut in 2014, it would be nearly a year before Tierney made his competitive debut. Coming on in the 81st minute, he replaced Honduran Emilio Izagiurre, helping the Glasgow club secure a 2-1 win away from home at Dens Park in Dundee in April 2015. It wouldn’t be until the 2015/16 season that he would make his true breakthrough, however. Norwegian Ronny Deila, then-manager of the club, rewarded the youngster with 23 appearances over the season, in which he managed to even get on the scoresheet once. Deila was effusive in his praise of the left back, telling the Daily Record that he thought the 18-year-old could go all the way to the top of the game. Talking to the Daily Record at the end of his single season in charge, he said, “Kieran can go all the way. He can play at the highest level if he continues to develop,”. Deila was keen to point out, however, what the player would need to do to continue to improve. “He needs to improve all the time and to do that he has to play. He has been playing here now consistently for seven months, he’s in a very good situation, playing for his national team and in Europe for a big club. What can be better?”. Tierney’s performances would be externally acknowledged too, with him winning both the Players’ and Writers’ Young Footballer of the Year in Scotland for that season.Embed from Getty Images
Kieran Tierney broke into the first team in 2015/16, with manager Ronny Deila convinced he can become world class
Tierney has received exactly the experience Deila felt he required ever since. With Brendan Rodgers’ arrival at Celtic in the summer of 2016, many following the club felt that the team had lost the spirit and determination of Celtic teams past. Despite winning the title under Deila, they had failed to play with quite the level of passion demanded by Celtic fans. Tierney was the one exception. Under Rodgers, he has become the first choice left back at the club and secured his place in Celtic folklore, becoming part of the famous Invincibles team that won every domestic trophy available in 2016/17 without a single competitive defeat. Numerous outstanding performances from the youngster, including a distinguished display in a 3-3 Champions League thriller against Manchester City at Parkhead, accented a season in which Tierney’s contribution to his club’s success couldn’t be denied. He again received the Players’ and Writers’ Young Player of the Year awards, becoming the first player to win either award in consecutive seasons since Steven Fletcher in 2009.
Such has Tierney’s impact been felt across the club, manager Rodgers has claimed in recent weeks that he believes the young player could go on to become captain one day. Speaking after a 5-0 drubbing of Kilmarnock, in which Tierney became the club’s youngest post-war captain and scored a wonder strike, Rodgers said, ““He’s of that ilk. Kieran doesn’t waste his time doing stupid things, he’s concentrated on his football, he lives his life to be a player, he’s not drinking, he trains like an animal every day and wherever you ask him to play he plays it to a high level, tactically he’s improving all the time and he’s an absolute joy to work with.”
Tierney is now Celtic’s youngest post-war captain, at 20 years old. Image attributed to SNS Media.
As a Celtic fan, it’s so refreshing to see a player truly appreciate the position he’s in. He’s living the dream so many of us have had and continue to have. What’s better, though, is that you can see through his actions and his words that he knows exactly how fortunate he is. Perhaps unfortunate is the wrong word. Tierney has shown the kind of dedication and hard work that is required to attain a place in the Celtic team and what’s encouraging is that there are no signs at present that he has any intention of letting up.
Given that I’m 10 years older than Kieran, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever take on that true hero status for me that some past Celtic players did when I was young. But his ability and, more importantly, his attitude, makes me hopeful for Celtic’s future. More than that, to know there are kids 20 years my junior who can have the homegrown Celtic hero I never did, is the best feeling a supporter can have.