EXCLUSIVE: Celtic enjoying benefits of home-grown talent

THE January transfer window has swung open with the usual avalanche of stories about who Celtic may be set to sign.

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Kennedy knows future is bright for youth academy
Kennedy knows future is bright for youth academy

Rami Gershon, an Israeli centre-half, is understood to have arrived from Belgian club Standard Liege on loan for the rest of the season.

And many more are being tipped to follow him before the month is out.

Yet, John Kennedy, the former Celtic defender who is now a youth coach at the Scottish champions, will be unconcerned if manager Neil Lennon opts not to bring in further reinforcements.

For Kennedy, who has been at the Parkhead club for over 13 years in a variety of different guises, believes the current squad is as strong as he has ever seen it.

Furthermore, he reckons there are promising youngsters emerging at Lennoxtown capable of stepping up into the first team and performing – including in the Champions League.

Despite being able to lavish millions of pounds on players, Lennon has handed chances to the likes of James Forrest, Dylan McGeouch and Tony Watt since taking charge.

And he has been rewarded, and then some, for showing faith in the kids with noteworthy successes both on the domestic scene and in Europe.

Speaking at Hampden, where he was attending the Uefa Pro Licence course run by the SFA, Kennedy predicted more are set to follow in the footsteps of Forrest, McGeouch and Watt.

"It helps when you have a first-team manager in place, like we have at Celtic, who has always got one eye on who is coming through," he said.

"Neil speaks regularly to the coaching staff regarding who is doing well and who we think deserves a call-up into his squad.

"That goes a long way. It makes us hungrier every day to try and keep developing the players as we know he will give them the opportunity.

"The players also recognise it and you do get a reaction from them. You can see them training every day wanting to impress us and wanting to impress the manager when he is there. That is what we want.

"There are clubs, especially in England, where very few first-team opportunities are given to young guys due to finance or whatever.

"But if you have belief in your youth development and you have a manager who is willing to give them a chance then that creates a successful environment for your players and your staff. We have that here."

Kennedy added: "There are a lot of players at the club (with the potential to get into the first team). It comes down to opportunity.

"The manager has been excellent in that respect. He has given quite a few players a chance. He gave John Herron his debut a few weeks ago and has played Jackson Irvine, Marcus Fraser and Joe Chalmers.

"I think it helps that the manager worked with the development squad at one point. He worked closely with James Forrest in that group and knew what he was capable of from a young age.

"As soon as he moved to the first team James was quickly promoted. He hasn't looked back since. That is down to him getting the opportunity.

"It is good that we have a manager who will look at our youths and will give someone the opportunity if he sees it is right."

Kennedy played in the Champions League with Celtic, including in wins over AC Milan, Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk, before injury cruelly cut short his playing career at the age of just 26 back in 2009.

And he sees no reason why Celtic's kids can't do a job in Europe – even against Juventus in their Champions League last 16 ties in February and March – if called upon thanks to their involvement in the NextGen Series.

"Playing in the Champions League was a fantastic experience," said Kennedy, who has watched his youngsters go up against teams including Sporting, PSV Eindhoven and Aston Villa this season.

"It's certainly a step up in class from the level you are playing at domestically every week. You are playing against the top players in the world.

"The experience a young player gains from stepping in there is remarkable. It will stand them in good stead for the rest of their careers.

"We try to replicate it at youth level with the NextGen Series. We have found that to be very beneficial. It is as close to the Champions League experience as we can get at that level.

"We hope that when they step in to the real thing, when they are asked to go and play against the likes of Juventus, they will be ready for it. They will already have a little bit of experience of it.

"Our youngsters have already experienced different countries, different cultures, played against continental clubs who play in different styles and have different philosophies.

"The preparation is the same. The standard of opposition is as good as it gets at that level of football.

"We have played a lot of youth sides this season who have played some good football against us. But there has not been a lot in the games. Believe me, we have good players with decent ability."

John Kennedy was speaking at the Scottish FA's Uefa Pro Licence course at Hampden Park. Visit www.scottishfa.co.uk/coacheducation for information on all coaching courses available.

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