One of the inevitable departures in the coming summer window is that of Karamoko Dembele, of whom much was promised but little seen. There are a lot of ways to look at the player and his time with us.
Is it right to say that you’ve missed out on something if you never really had it?
Do we mourn every lottery ticket that doesn’t come up as a winner because of what might have been?
We may have a wistful longing for certain things we never got to have, but genuinely miss them?
Is it fair to say that Dembele has played no part in our history?
So why would we be concerned about the impact on the club when he goes?
Well, here’s the thing; we did have this kid on our books, and we did have an opportunity to find out what exactly he had to offer, and we never bothered to press that opportunity in the right way.
We play in the SPL. Is it a stretch to say that in the absence of James Forrest and an entire season without a right sided winger that we should maybe have thought about giving a chance to a kid who plays in that position and about whom so much has been written and said? Dembele has admirers across Europe.
What do they see that the Celtic Park management team don’t?
What do they rate him for that Neil Lennon and John Kennedy don’t value?
There’s a way to look at this which might offer some insight.
On 25 May 2019, we gave Neil Lennon the gig as manager.
A manager with no experience whatsoever of developing young players and making them into better ones.
Now, Stephen Welsh has come through on Lennon’s watch, but that was a matter of necessity rather than the promotion of a kid who had excelled at youth level. Jeremie Frimpong also cracked the first team when he’d been signed as a raw talent, but quickly proved himself worthy.
So let’s be fair to Lennon here and say that it’s not all black and white as far as this stuff goes.
But even so, the fact remains that Lennon has no history of developing youth.
He’d rather buy a footballer than promote one from the academy, and that’s a mark of a lot of bosses in the modern age, but it’s the kind of manager we should have avoided like the bubonic plague.
That was the day, I think, that guaranteed that Karamoko Dembele would never be a Celtic first team regular. The appointment of Neil Lennon was the day we gave up on that.
It was a matter of months later, in October, when the French football journal L’Equipe, which is not exactly known for hyperbole, listed Dembele amongst the six outstanding talents in the world game, the young players ready to “revolutionise” football.
Now, I have often taken issue with these kinds of lists.
The Guardian’s Top 50 young players list is frequently padded out with nobodies who never got anywhere … but L’Equipe have proved to be a little bit better at hitting the mark this time around.
Because four of the six have made huge strides since then.
One of the two who hasn’t is Karamoko Dembele.
The other is Joelson Fernande of Sporting Lisbon, but all of his four appearances – at seventeen – have come this season, and the Portuguese media already compares him to a young Cristiano Ronaldo, so it’s fair to say he’s got something special.
Karim Adeyemi is the oldest of the group, at 19.
He plays for RB Salzburg, and has 16 games and 2 goals for them. He’s spent most of his time there on loan at their second tier feeder club, where he’s taken his career games up to 50 and 17 goals.
Mohamed Ihattaren is also 19, he plays for PSV, as a midfielder.
He has 51 appearances for their first team; he’s an established regular at the club. He’s also been capped at every level in his age group for the Dutch, and will probably make his Under 21 debut this year and then it’s a matter of time for him before he’s a full international.
Sebastiano Esposito is 18.
He’s an Inter Milan player who has 7 appearances for them; in one of them he became the second youngest player ever to play in a Champions League Group match, when he came on against Dortmund. He’s already been capped by the Italians at Under 21 level and has spent time out on loan at two other Italian clubs.
The last of the six was Ansu Fati.
Need I say more? 31 games for Barcelona, 11 goals … and four caps for Spain. At eighteen.
But I guess L’Equipe just got lucky with that pick.
Dembele has four appearances for Celtic since Lennon gave him a cameo debut in 2019, including coming on as a sub the 2-0 away defeat against Cluj, where he became our youngest ever player to appear in Europe.
To say he’s been used infrequently is to re-write the language. He’s not been used at all. He’s been included in squads, but very much as an afterthought.
Today he turns 18. By the end of this campaign he’ll have agreed terms with somebody else. Will they develop him into the kind of player we would have enjoyed watching? You’d put money on it right now, wouldn’t you? We’ve allowed this kid to rot on the bench, when common sense would tell you that he deserved an opportunity to learn and grow.
Our club hasn’t even got a loan system worth a damn, a means of sending this kid out where he could have been playing regular football this past year, as Salzburg and Inter have done with their kids. All this talk of us having global reach; what good is it if we’ve not even got a feeder club to send him to, to make sure he doesn’t stagnate?
Whoever comes in over the course of the summer, whatever the changes are to the football department, Dembele is set to be the latest in a long line of promising young players who will walk out the door having seen no progression and no path towards first team football, and that we have got to sort out and not with some ill-considered option of putting colt teams in the lowers leagues of Scotland which will only guarantee that we get nowhere.
The problem with young Dembele isn’t that he didn’t cut it, or that he wasn’t ready … it’s that we’re never going to get the chance now to find out because we’ve wasted time on this as we’ve wasted time on so much else.