McCart: Celtic kids are a head of the game

BHOY-OH-BOY, the conveyor belt of talent being produced at Celtic is ready to be cranked up a gear.

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Chris McCart has watched James Forrest flourish
Chris McCart has watched James Forrest flourish

The investment of millions in the training academy at the Hoops has already produced James Forrest to become a first-team star.

The precocious talent has been joined in Neil Lennon's team in the past year by 20-year-old Darnell Fisher and 18-year-old Liam Henderson, who both made significant contributions to securing the club's third title in a row.

Over the course of the campaign, other academy graduates to make the step up included John Herron, Eoghan O'Connell, Bahrudin Atajic and Filip Twardzik.

Tony Watt, Jackson Irvine and Callum McGregor were all sent on loan to gain more game time and experience and will return to Parkhead, along with Tom Rogic, ready to show Lennon what they have learned.

All of which delights the Hoops boss, who cut his teeth as a manager when put in charge of the Development Squad during Tony Mowbray's time at the club.

Lennon has always maintained that, with the financial handcuffs placed on Celtic by the limitation on their income, it is essential the club have a successful programme of developing their own potential stars.

Despite the massive investment involved, the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscow for £9.5million confirmed it can pay for itself.

But, Lennon is far more interested in seeing youngsters move into his first team - and remaining there.

As midfielder Henderson proved in the final few months of the season, and full-back Fisher showed before picking up the knee injury which brought his campaign to a premature end, opportunity will be presented to anyone good enough and determined enough to take it, irrespective of age.

A glimpse of the future was given in January when Lennon threw several rising stars into the team which competed in the Antalya Cup in Turkey against Galatasaray and Trabzonspor.

Despite facing much more experienced and battle-hardened opponents - including Dutch star Wesley Sneijder - the kids held their own.

All of which brings more credit to the door of Academy chief, Chris McCart, who has watched the Under-20s clinch their league title for a fifth straight year and the Under-19s complete a treble.

He acknowledges trophies are a bonus, developing players good enough for the first team is the real prize.

And the former Motherwell defender is confident the supply chain is working well, and appreciated by the man at the top of the tree.

McCart said: "You look at the manager's time in charge of the club. He has given 16 academy players their debut.

"They have not all taken this chance. Although they've all played in competitive games, we are only looking at three or four who have made the most of that opportunity at this moment.

"It is one area we have looked at. Can we develop a stronger mentality within the academy players coming through?

"It's such a tough ask for them to play in front of 60,000 fans, having to win each week and compete with others players in the squad who cost between one and three million pounds.

"So we have to make sure they are fully equipped to adapt.

"Through the manager, we brought in Jim McGuinness two seasons ago to see if we could get a stronger mindset into the younger players.

"At academy level, we also partnered with Positive Coaching Scotland, so we were educating the young players from the age of nine, their parents and the coaches, on mental strength and preparation.

"There is real emphasis now on getting that edge on to the players and, hopefully, that will push them across the line."

The path is already well trodden, and no one has made the journey more successfully in recent years than Forrest.

He is a beacon of hope for all aspiring young Celts, and McCart said: "James came through the academy, and played in all age groups.

"He was always a role model, but never a top player as a youngster. James would always work hard at his game.

"His parents were very grounded. He travelled from Ayrshire each day, and they put a lot of effort into that, getting him to training.

"When I first came into the club in 2008, James was 16 and worked hard at his game. He would stay behind, work on his crossing, his one-v-ones.

"He wasn't the most talented at that time, but had real potential.

"Neil Lennon was then in charge of the Development Squad, and pulled James out of the youth team because he saw the potential in him.

"The manager took to him right away, and, when Neil succeeded Tony Mowbray, the first young player he took from the academy and gave him the opportunity to play in the first team was James.

"I think James has paid him back for all the faith the manager has shown in him and all the good work he has put in with him."

Never was that repayment more pronounced than when Forrest turned the tide for Celtic - and Lennon - as they trailed Kilmarnock 3-0 at half-time in a game at Rugby Park in October 2011.

It was further proof that Alan Hansen was wrong: You can win things with kids.

Lennon accepts, however, they need to be drip fed into the side, preferably a side which is stable, performing well, and able to help the youngsters take their first, important steps in the big boys' playground.

Not every one who is given the chance can take it, whether through lack of ability or temperament.

But, there is a careful vetting process established to identify those most likely to succeed, and McCart is a key player in this process.

He believes they are as well-equipped as they can be when opportunity knocks, not least because this is a can-do generation.

"Sometimes you see that with young players, there is not as much fear in them," he told Celtic TV.

"They have got this feel for the club, as well. They want to give it their best shot. Even when the chips are down, they will run themselves into the ground.

"The quality might not be there all of the time, but the effort is because they have been brought through the academy and know what it's like to represent such a prestigious club.

"We would like to get more young players through to the first team, and to consolidate their position there.

"Celtic has a rich history of developing young players, and we would like to continue with that conveyor belt of talent."

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