Rocco Vata will either be at Celtic when the transfer window closes or he will not be. Rocco Vata will either have signed a new deal, or we will be doing our best to ship him out. As it stands, I do not believe that he will remain with the club.
I’ve expressed my view on this several times, and it’s not worth doing again. Instead, let’s look at a previous youth prospect who promised much, delivered little and faintly bleeped on the radar yesterday.
There are two youth players who I was hearing about for years before they ever got near the first team; before I name them, let me say that this is what I mean when I say that talent will be obvious and undisputed. Whatever level short of the first team you watch them play at, they will stand head and shoulders above everyone else.
Before I go on to talk about the player in question – most of you already know which one it is – I want to talk about two others, not Celtic players, but who illustrate the points I want to make here; few make the grade and even after the first team has been breached, it is not guaranteed that you’re going to be a success.
In his wonderful book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby lays out the saga of Gus Caesar. In a telling paragraph, he charts how things went for the centre back at one time.
Best player in his school team. Best player in his first year at the Arsenal academy. Capped for England as an under 17. Then as an under 18. Then as under 21. Self doubt? What does that mean? Because from there he’s named on the bench a couple of times for the first team squad and suddenly there he is, in the team, not only keeping out Manchester Utd but being talked about as a full international and then he’s named in an England squad.
And it was all an illusion. Embarrassing displays piled up and up until Caesar suffered the utter humiliation of the 1988 League Cup Final when his staggering error – he miskicked a clearance inside his own penalty area, (he actually misses the ball and falls) – allowed Luton to equalise with seven minutes to go; they would go on to win in injury time.
Hornby remembers it vividly, the way a man might remember a near-death experience, and describes Caeser’s performance from that day as being like “someone who had won a Be A Footballer For A Day competition.”
He sums up Caesar, and his own self-doubts as a writer, thus.
“To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation… and it still wasn’t quite enough … Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has ever played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square … just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin … and it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
That’s a warning to every youth player who ever thought he was good enough for the first team.
The odds against you are astonishing, absolutely out of sight.
You need to be exceptional, genuinely exceptional, to crack the first team at any club … but at a big club? Wow.
The other player who comes readily to mind, and this is a much better example of the phenomenon of how obvious the Real Deal is when you see it, is Robbie Fowler, although I could have just as easily said Ryan Giggs or Wayne Rooney; but Fowler is a case in point because so, so, so many people were raving about him way before he was ever in the Liverpool first team.
He exploded into that squad, with 12 goals in his first 14 games.
He had only signed for the club’s academy three years before … his rise was meteoric and his talent was just so unmistakable that no-one could contain it. Almost from the moment he signed on at the academy, people were tipping him for stardom.
Which brings me to the two Celtic players I was hearing about way before I ever saw them play. Islam Feruz, I never did get to see play but his name was everywhere in coaching circles and all across the game.
About a year after I’d first heard it mentioned I was working night shift in a homeless unit when the big lad who worked the shifts beside me, a big Chelsea fan from London, told me that he was a part-time coach and had just watched the most unbelievable talent he’d ever seen … and I knew what he was going to say before he said the name.
The other special talent whose name was on everyone’s lips is the guy this article is really about. Because if Feruz is the ultimate cautionary tale for Rocca Vata, then this guy isn’t far behind. He might be the most hyped Celtic player of this generation, more so even than Feruz, which is saying something considering the headlines that kid got.
Karamoko Dembele had all the hype in the world. But he’s quickly finding out that youth players who have left our club for “bigger things” and “first team games” over the years are more likely to find that they are Gus Caeser’s than Robbie Fowler’s. He signed for Brest, in France, on a long term deal. Last season, he barely played at all.
Now he’s going on loan to League One Blackpool, and I don’t know if that’s going to work out any better for him than the move to the continent did. These guys all think they are ready, and Dembele even got a couple of games for the Celtic first team … but he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t any more ready for that step up than Gus Caesar was.
Here’s something that should give Dembele pause; one of Feruz’s last stops on the way to ignominy and being utterly forgotten by the game, was Blackpool. He signed for them in 2015, and played a mere two matches.
Football is a harsh, unforgiving, meritocratic business. This morning I wrote about Liam Scales and his trial by fire; Scales, at least, has made it to a professional career, even if turns out that it won’t be with Celtic … Dembele has a long way to go and he’s 20 already so I think the odds are well and truly stacked against him.
He did, at least, score a senior goal, as a Celtic player, during one of his ten appearances for our side. Feruz never managed a senior goal for any of the clubs he played for; he’s 27 and sells hats online. That’s a disastrous end to what most people thought would be an illustrious career, and if you wanted to know where it went wrong the only issue would be in where you started trying to tell the story. Ego, greed, bad advice from agents … it all factored in.
I don’t know who is advising Rocco Vata, his dad maybe, but if he was ready for first team football at Celtic, he would be playing it already. He would be in the squad and getting time on the pitch. He got four games last season, so his evident belief that his talents at Parkhead are somehow unappreciated is ludicrous and unsupported by the evidence.
That he thinks the grass will be greener somewhere else, that he’ll be guaranteed playing time somewhere else, is precisely the kind of thinking that led Dembele to umm and aww over a new deal.
We have promoted one player from the academy in the last two years who was told that he would immediately be considered a first team footballer, and that was Ben Doak. He’s another guy I’d heard a lot about before I even saw him play and he did stand out, so much so that Ange assured him that he would be part of the squad. He chose Anfield, and that’s fair enough. He might have the talent to crack it there; we certainly thought he could make it here.
But that these other kids – the Vata’s, the Dembele’s – weren’t thought of the same way isn’t a slight on Celtic. It’s not even a slight on them. It’s just the cold, harsh reality of football, where it takes more than skill to make the cut.
If you’re already throwing your toys out the pram, at 18, for not being in the Celtic team you’re not mature enough for that promotion, and that’s a self-evident fact. Dembele was the same, and he’s finding out the hard way how tough it is to make it anywhere in the game. Blackpool could be the graveyard of his career.
According to the media today, we’ve got solid high six figure offers for Vata. A lot of people in our support evidently agree that he hasn’t been given opportunities. But as I’ve said consistently, if he had that undeniable Fowler quality, we wouldn’t be spending multi-million-pound fees buying wingers from across the globe.
We’ve signed Tullio, Yang and now Palma in just this window. Prior to that we’d signed Abada, Haksabanovic and Jota, at tremendous cost. Why would Celtic, this bean-counter club, have signed no fewer than six wingers in short order if this guy was impressing the coaches enough every day to justify putting him straight into the team?
Football clubs, even those which spend money like its going out of fashion, aren’t ultimately run by complete idiots … if there’s a genuine prospect in the academy or the reserves who could save them a few quid that guy would be in the team.
As the Gus Caesar story shows, even when you do make the climb, and you’re in the first team, the hard work doesn’t just cease.
In fact, that’s when it starts. Celtic has a history of players who made similar journeys and couldn’t make it last; there’s a story about Mark Burchill buying a sports car after scoring in Celtic’s 5-1 win over Rangers in 1998 because he reckoned that he was now part of the superstar elite. It didn’t turn out like that.
Karamoko Dembele and Celtic had a mutual parting of the ways.
By the time he left I think people inside the club realised that he was more Gus Caesar than Robbie Fowler and weren’t going to stand in his way. His contract was allowed to run down. We didn’t even try to get a fee for him; in that, Rocco Vata’s case is different. His contract has a year left. Having offered him a new one and been rebuffed we’re willing to accept offers.
He will most probably depart now, and I know a lot of our fans will be saddened by that just as they were when Feruz left, when Hepburn left, when Dembele left.
Hell, I remember being astonished when we let Aiden Nesbit go; I had watched him a few times and thought he had an excellent chance of making it, and he did but just not at our level; he spent two years at MK Dons, then was at Dundee Utd and wound up from there at Morton where he was a very good player until they sold him to Falkirk two years ago.
A professional, yes, but not the player I hoped he’d be.
All these guys should serve as a warning to Rocco Vata about what he does next, and what his expectations are. But most of all he should look at Karamoko Dembele, the last youth academy player who was hyped and cracked the squad, played in the team but ultimately could not make that final, most difficult jump; the one to being a regular.
Ange Postecoglou spoke about this last season, and his words should still be ringing in Rocco Vata’s ears;
“I’ve said in the past you can have guaranteed gametime but you won’t play for this club or any big club,” he said. “Guaranteed play time you can get it at a club where maybe they’re not as strong or are not competing for trophies … If at any point any player is not happy with that or wants more gametime? Well, there’s only one way to do that and that is to train hard when you get an opportunity, to do well and present yourself in the best possible light or you can look for other opportunities elsewhere.”
Rocco Vata, like many before him, wants to look for those opportunities.
He’s welcome to try.
Others wanted to do the same, and most of them haven’t enjoyed the experience.
Maybe his future is first team football in Italy and stunning us all with how wrong the coaches here were.
Or maybe we’ll see him at Blackpool one day, just another in a long line of players who thought they were ready before their time, just another of the Gus Caesar’s. But if he was a Robbie Fowler … yeah, we’d already know.