When a side has been as dominant as Celtic were last season, it’s sometimes difficult to see where new challenges will come from.
They remain unbeaten this season in all competitions; having navigated their way through the third qualifying round of the Champions League against Rosenberg without conceding, winning their first two games of the league season against Hearts and Partick Thistle, while also beating Kilmarnock 5-0 in the League Cup.
It’s another bright start for Brendan Rodgers’ side, and initial signs show that they’re on course to repeat their title win, so the club’s challenges may lie on the continent or in other areas of the game; such as youth development.
At the end of the 2015/16 season, the then manager Ronny Deila handed a debut to 16-year-old Jack Aitchison.
The young striker scored with his first touch of the ball to become the club’s youngest ever goalscorer with the strike coming just 71 days after his 16th birthday.
It was the ideal time for the highly regarded youngster to make his mark. He’d just returned from Scotland’s disappointing showing in the 2016 Under-17 European Championships in Azerbaijan where they’d been beaten by Belgium, Portugal, and the hosts in the group stage.
This goal-scoring substitute appearance in a 7-0 win against Motherwell will have immediately re-instilled some of his confidence.
“My first thought was to hit it straight away with my left foot. Luckily enough, I had time to think and I didn’t choke,” Aitchison said of his goal.
“I was very lucky that the team had played well and were winning 6-0. Because of that, I got on sooner than I was supposed to. My mum, dad, grandpa, my wee sister and my dad’s girlfriend were all there.”
In the same interview with Roddy Forsyth of The Telegraph, the player also spoke of the sacrifices he had to make to get to the position where he was making an appearance for the first team.
“I’m not going to lie – I don’t have many pals,” he said. “When I moved schools I lost all my pals and by the time I got back home I couldn’t go out at night.
“That was a sacrifice but it was worth it for this moment. Sometimes I wondered if I was doing the right thing because I would see my pals in pictures and wished I was there.
“But once they see you in pictures with the league trophy and scoring I realise that’s what I did it for.
“They all want to be pals with me again! They are all asking for my number. I had 1,200 Twitter followers on Sunday morning but now it’s gone up to nearly 8,000 [he now has over 20,000].”
“I also need to thank my dad, George, because he worked two jobs but, when he came home about 7pm, he would take me out to the park and help me with extra training. He’s been doing that for a couple of years.
“He has a corner shop in Fauldhouse, a wee newsagents. He had to order more papers on Monday morning.”
The Rodgers Effect
He will also have been grateful to Deila for handing him his debut, but even though he may not have been happy to see him leave the club, the teenage forward must have been pleased to see Brendan Rodgers succeed the Norwegian.
From his days working at Chelsea’s academy, through to his time at Liverpool where he brought through the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe; Rodgers has been known for his ability to nurture young talent.
“He's always happy, smiling and talking to me about how to improve,” Aitchison told the UEFA website.
“He helped Raheem Sterling along, so if I keep going with him hopefully that's what I can do and become a top player.
“He tells me to express myself, believe in myself and that if I work hard the opportunities will come. That has happened since he's been manager so I'd like to thank him for that.”
Despite his enthusiasm for working under Rodgers, Aitchison’s game time was limited to just two appearances totalling 21-minutes in the league last season.
In one of these appearances he managed to grab an assist to a Scott Sinclair goal by winning the penalty which was converted by the Englishman in a 4-0 win vs Hearts.
He did, however, take part in the UEFA Youth League which runs alongside the Champions League, scoring goals home and away against Barcelona despite his team failing to win a game.
Going into this season one of the challenges which the club could set for themselves is to bring the next generation of players through to the first team.
It would be even more of an achievement if they could also introduce home-grown talent such as Aitchison, who can then progress into the Scottish national side.
Leading The Way In Youth Development
Aitchison is a product of the highly praised partnership between the club and local high school St Ninian’s in the nearby town of Kirkintilloch, from which he graduated after finishing school in February 2016. Just months later he was scoring his first goal for the club.
“Last year Peter Lawwell [Celtic chief executive], John Park [football development manager] and I went benchmarking a lot of the top European clubs to give ourselves a good picture of what other clubs were doing,” explained Chris McCart, who runs Celtic's youth set up.
“It turns out that just about every major European set-up has an involvement with a school, and school was a big part of the club, with the idea being to ensure education in tandem with football development.
“We visited clubs like PSV Eindhoven, AC Milan, Ajax and Benfica to see how their set-up worked. We came back and decided that we had to have a look at a school that had the same kind of philosophy as ourselves, but that it would have to have very good facilities as morning training sessions are held at the school.”
This continental approach could see other clubs in Scotland set up similar arrangements with schools, and the improvement it could encourage at school level might have a knock-on effect on the development of young sports-people across the country.
Aitchison is a right footed striker who has also scored goals with his left foot and his head. He’s instinctive in front of goal and will always look to create space for an early shot. There is also evidence of good off the ball movement, good hold-up play, and the ability to be in the right place at the right time.
In the slightly grainy screenshots below he uses his body well to control a high ball in to him, before cushioning it with one touch and creating space for a shot with another.
He also gets the shot away with his weaker foot, showing he has no hesitation when it comes to using it.
His dribbling ability and eye for a pass or cross also means he can operate in wide areas, He’s played a number of games on the wing during his time in various youth sides at club and international level.
In the image below he finds himself out on the left with a forward ahead of him. He uses his left foot to play the ball perfectly into the channel. As a striker he'll know where he'd have liked this pass played, which helps his teammate here.
When featuring centrally he’s also shown that he’s calm and composed in front of goal, and if needed he will take the ball around the goalkeeper rather than rush a shot which might have a lower chance of finding the net.
On top of his ever-improving attacking play, Aitchison also has the ability and desire to help out off the ball. He will press opposition defenders and try to force them into errors as they play out from the back.
One of Celtic’s biggest challenges this season will come on the continent as they attempt to make inroads in the Champions League. If they fail to qualify for that competition they will hope to progress to the latter rounds of the Europa League.
On home soil, however, the club will be looking to bring through youth, and the improvement of the highly regarded Aitchison will be something else the club can judge itself on going into 2018.