Grant Jennings takes an in-depth look at Kieran Tierney’s journey from the Isle of Man to the Scotland national team, and a rise in status which has seen him become one of the most in-demand full-backs in the UK.
Everybody remembers Marcus Rashford’s debut for Manchester United.
February 25th, 2016. The opponent: FC Midtjylland. Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up, and in the absence of any tried-and-tested replacements, Rashford got his chance.
Midtjylland went into the game 2-1 up from the first leg, and they took an early lead in the second with their first shot on target to give themselves a cushion, adding to the post-Fergie fugue that had long descended upon Old Trafford.
An own goal dragged Manchester United back into the tie, and in twelve second half minutes, Rashford scored twice to put United into the lead.
United would go on to score two more goals to complete a 5-1 disposal on the night, but all the post-match talk was invariably about Rashford.
The dream start, the saviour, the local boy come good.
In the few short months between his European debut and the end of the season, he scored in his first Premier League outing, his first Manchester Derby, his first League Cup fixture, and his first full international appearance.
He booked himself a spot on the plane to France for the European Championships and provided the only unbridled spark for Roy Hodgson’s team with a series of late appearances from the bench as England followed Brexit with another nonsensical departure from the continental stage.
Rashford’s seamless emergence from the Manchester United academy – his home from the age of seven – offered some vindication for Louis van Gaal, whose tenure at the club will be remembered as much for the blooding of youngsters as it will for his insistence on perfunctory, robotic football.
Jesse Lingard, Tyler Blackett, Donald Love, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Paddy McNair – these are just some of the names that made the step from Carrington to the Old Trafford pitch with varying degrees of success.
Some, like Lingard and Rashford, still ply their trade at United under Jose Mourinho, whereas others have found themselves shipped out on loan or thanked for their efforts before being shown the door.
Unlike his cohorts, Blackett already had a taste of first-team football before Van Gaal’s arrival.
In the 2013/14 season, he had loan spells at Blackpool and Birmingham, before impressing his new boss enough to be included in a number of pre-season fixtures, thanks to a slew of defensive injuries and departures, as well as his own versatility.
Flitting between left back and centre back, back threes and back fours, he made twelve appearances for United in 2014/15, a spell noted for his ill-timed tackles as much as his willingness to put his body on the line.
The next summer, a few days before the end of the transfer window, Celtic signed him on loan, and United hoped the Bhoys would help to polish their rough diamond.
Initially signed as both cover at left back and as a potential replacement for the Southampton-bound Virgil van Dijk, Blackett struggled at Parkhead under Ronny Deila, best defined by his performance against Molde in the Europa League.
Jozo Simunovic went off injured for Celtic after only nine minutes, so Blackett came on to replace him at centre back. Soon after, the loanee’s half-cleared cross fell to Mohamed Elyounoussi, who had time and space aplenty in which to chest the ball down and smash it past Craig Gordon.
Celtic found brief respite after Kris Commons’ equaliser, but were soon behind again after Blackett was outfought by Daniel Hestad despite being almost half the age of the 40-year-old midfielder and being between Hestad and the ball in the first place.
The icing came when Blackett was subbed off an hour after coming on, and the match finished 2-1 to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
Blackett was far from alone in being defensively fragile that night, nor was such a performance in Europe under Deila anything new for Celtic, but the young Englishman was held up as a scapegoat in the aftermath.
“I watched the young lad Blackett the other night,” Paul Lambert said.
“He looked so petrified. Every time he had the ball he looked as if he had a mistake in him. You thought, ‘the game is too big for him’.”
John Hartson echoed those sentiments:
“Against Molde, Blackett looked a fish out of water. It was torture to watch, and mentally he must be in bits, after replacing the again injured Simunovic and then being hooked himself.”
They did, however, reserve special praise for one natural left back that evening.
Kieran Tierney was born in Douglas on the Isle of Man. His Scottish parents moved with him to Lanarkshire before his first birthday, but such are his ties to his Manx roots, he routinely visits his birthplace, and the locals have fostered a healthy interest in his development.
He was even invited to play for Ellan Vannin, the island’s ‘national team’ that competes against other states unrecognised by FIFA or UEFA in the Confederation of Independent Football Associations’ (ConIFA) tournaments, such as Greenland, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The idea was not dismissed out of hand.
Tierney made his debut for Celtic in Helsinki as a seventeen-year-old in the 2014/15 preseason, ten years after joining the club.
He came off the bench against Tottenham Hotspur as a wiry sprite with a reputation for providing width and thrust down the left-hand side of the pitch. Celtic were 4-0 down at the time, but the teenager was still in dreamland.
“Before I came on, I wasn’t even thinking about the score,” Tierney said.
“All I had in my head was that I was playing for the team that I’ve always loved and supported and all I wanted to do was work hard.”
Tierney spent the majority of 2014/15 in Celtic’s development squad, competing in the newly-christened SPFL Development League, including a game against Hearts where he scored from the edge of his own penalty area after the Jambos’ keeper went up to the halfway line to take a late free kick.
The season ended with Celtic as inevitable SPFL champions, seventeen points clear of second-placed Aberdeen. Ronny Deila had delivered another season of monotonous domestic success in lieu of continental progression, and the Parkhead faithful would have to wait to see their new young left back at home.
When Deila was appointed at Celtic as a relative unknown, one of the major selling points given to fans by the club’s hierarchy was that he had a reputation for fostering young talent. No one epitomised this hope more than Tierney.
“I saw that Kieran was a good player from the very first day I watched him,” the Norwegian manager said in the aftermath of a game against Fenerbahce in the Europa League, Tierney’s fifth appearance of the 2015/16 season.
“He does not look as if he’s just 18. That is why he played in such an important European match. He thinks and plays like a 25-year-old.”
The Fenerbahce game, a 2-2 draw at home after surrendering a 2-0 lead, served as the microcosm of Deila’s tenure: the promotion of youth, the wastefulness in Europe, the hilarity of Efe Ambrose’s defending. The disaster of Malmo was yet to come.
But still, Celtic dominated the domestic scene, and Kieran Tierney excelled. He had displaced Izaguirre as the side’s go-to left back, starting 33 games to the Honduran’s 21, completing 90 minutes on 27 occasions.
Alan Morrison’s Celtic By Numbers blog is a treasure trove of statistical information, all of which is readily available for reproduction if you ask him nicely.
In a post from the end of January 2017, you’ll find that Tierney and Izaguirre match and contrast in several interesting ways.
In the 2015/16 season, Tierney set up eight goals (0.26 per 90 minutes) whereas Izaguirre set up three (0.14 per 90), despite the Scot averaging almost twenty passes less than the Honduran over the same average period, indicative of Tierney’s preference to accurately pass to a teammate from the byline as opposed to Izaguirre’s tendency to cross the ball into zones.
Indeed, Tierney’s low, drilled cutbacks have become something of a trademark, both domestically and in Europe.
Tierney completed 6.46 tackles and intercepted the ball 4.39 times per 90, which edges Izaguirre’s 6.26 and 3.79 respectively, although the latter had a slightly higher tackling success rate of 71% to the youngster’s 68%.
Where the data tells the most interesting story is in how they both defended.
Tierney cleared the ball an average 6.49 times per 90, three ahead of Izaguirre’s 3.46, highlighting a no-nonsense approach compared to playing out from the back, a trait open to many a pub debate over its efficacy, and certainly in line with Tierney’s boyhood adulation of Bobo Balde.
Tierney also averaged an astoundingly low 0.54 fouls and 0.32 errors per 90, much lower than the 1.26 and 0.98 shown from the Honduran.
Perhaps the most important numbers to consider are Tierney’s age at the time, as well as his prior first-team experience.
An eighteen-year-old academy graduate with two competitive appearances had matched and often exceeded a seasoned international with over 200 games for Celtic; a former recipient of the Players, Sports Writers and the SPFL’s Player of the Year awards was suddenly unsure of his place in the team thanks to a boy almost eleven years his junior.
The awards soon followed Tierney, winning both the Players and Writers’ Young Player of the Year awards, as Celtic again sealed domestic honours.
“When I was just starting to train with the first team last season, [Izaguirre] took me under his wing, gave me a lot of tips, and worked a lot with me on crossing,” Tierney said in March 2016.
“All that helped me progress … I hope he stays.”
The Honduran did, but the Norwegian did not. Ronny Deila paid the price for repeated wastefulness in Europe, and was replaced by the marquee Brendan Rodgers in the summer of 2016; Kieran Tierney signed a new deal, tying him to the club until 2021.
Tyler Blackett played nine games for Celtic in the whole of 2015/16 before returning to Manchester United. Jose Mourinho sold him to Reading, where Jaap Stam welcomed him with open arms.
A lot has been said about the hokey nature of Brendan Rodgers’ motivational techniques.
When at Liverpool, he told his squad he had written down the names of three players that would “let the club down,” keeping the names in three envelopes he had filed away for safekeeping, before revealing at the end of the season that the envelopes were empty and there were no names to speak of.
Whatever his methods, his record of improving young players is irrefutable, and his impact on Celtic has been clear.
At the time of writing, the 2016/17 season is still underway, and it’s fair to say that the manner of Celtic’s already-sealed, guaranteed-before-the-season-even-started league title is more down to their own improvement than a general weakening of their unlikely challengers.
Indeed, Aberdeen – second in the table now, and last season’s runners-up – are only seven points shy of their own 2015/16 points total with six games still to play. Celtic are already on 90 points, four points better off than their final haul last season.
With 29 wins and three draws from the first 32 games, on top of already winning the Scottish League Cup with a Scottish Cup semi-final on the horizon, Celtic’s domestic dominance is as obvious as it is impressive, irrespective of the quality of the opposition.
In Europe, progress has been made by merely qualifying for the Champions League, something Ronny Deila never achieved at Parkhead.
Even Rodgers’ first competitive game in charge of Celtic – a humiliating defeat to Gibraltarian minnows Lincoln Red Imps in the first leg of Champions League qualification, considered one of the worst defeats in the club’s history – has been reduced to an anomalous footnote.
In the competition proper, Celtic were drawn in an unforgiving Group C, alongside Barcelona, Manchester City, and Borussia Monchengladbach.
Impressive draws against City, including a hectic 3-3 draw which marked the first time Pep Guardiola’s side had failed to win under the Spaniard, were undermined by a 7-0 humbling at the hands of Barcelona, and a disappointing 2-0 reverse at home against A German Team.
Celtic finished bottom of their group, winless and with three points, but a return to the biggest stage in club football and the resumption of the famous Parkhead atmosphere in Europe had brought the feel-good factor back to Celtic fans, as well as a much-needed challenge. Above all, the tactically naïve slaughter at the Nou Camp aside, Celtic had managed to compete in all their games, even if they hadn’t managed to win.
That Rodgers managed to keep his team focused on matters at home after their European exit is a credit to his oft-maligned man-management.
Win after win after win is in marked contrast to their relatively human form of 2015/16, where Aberdeen had been within three points of Celtic before a late-season switch in form allowed the Bhoys to win the league by fifteen; in 2017, Celtic had were confirmed champions by the start of April, 23 points ahead of the distant Dons.
In the midst of the remarkable, a blow.
“It came as a bit of a shock for us all, really. It was just a nothing challenge,” Rodgers said in the aftermath.
Kieran Tierney had just damaged his ankle ligaments in training, which would keep him out of action for at least two months. It was October, and he had continued his remarkable form from the previous season. This was the first major setback of his young professional career.
The injury meant Emilio Izaguirre regained his starting berth at left back, while Tierney missed the second half of Celtic’s Champions League campaign, as well as Scotland’s World Cup qualifier with England.
In his absence, Celtic rumbled on, and Tierney combined his recovery with a return to the stands at Parkhead:
“I grew up a Celtic fan and everyone knows that, but even when I was out injured, I wanted to take it in from the stands, to see what it felt like for them, and to see how special it was.
“I loved that time. I was injured, but I wanted to make a positive out of it, going back as a fan and back to reality.
“It’s great being a supporter, especially when you’re winning every game, but it does make you realise how much you want to play for Celtic. It just makes that feeling even stronger.”
Tierney didn’t return to the starting line-up until their 3-0 Scottish Cup win over Albion Rovers, almost three months after the fact, where he dovetailed as well as ever with Scott Sinclair down Celtic’s left-hand side.
And so Tierney swapped the stands for the pitch once more, and Celtic thumped another Scottish team.
Such an emphasis on playing on the front foot domestically might explain the shift in Tierney’s statistical output.
Referencing the same Celtic By Numbers post from earlier, Tierney seemed to be less impressive defensively in the SPFL than he was in his breakthrough season.
His tackling success rate had dropped from 68% to 56%, and his error rate per 90 minutes had marginally increased from 0.32 to 0.36, the same 0.36 as Emilio Izaguirre.
In terms of winning tackles and making interceptions, Tierney had actually fallen behind the more typically gung-ho Honduran, who himself had improved.
His propensity for clearing the ball (6.87 times per 90) showed that he still relied on his safety-first approach, safe in the knowledge that his team would invariably win the ball back sooner rather than later.
In terms of using the ball, Tierney’s passing as a whole was still behind Izaguirre’s, but the gulf was beginning to narrow: what was nearly twenty fewer passes per 90 in 2015/16 had dropped to eleven, and a 5% worse-off passing accuracy had dropped to 2%.
But while Izaguirre still used the ball more often than Tierney, he was nowhere near as effective as the Scot.
By the end of January, Tierney had completed the fourth highest number of dribbles in the entire Celtic team, behind only James Forrest, Patrick Roberts and Scott Sinclair, all of whom are out-and-out attackers.
He had also chipped in with eight assists at a rate of 0.41 per 90, as many as he did in the entire 2015/16 season, over three months before the end of the season, with a two-month injury layoff in the interim. Only Leigh Griffiths did so with more regularity, at 0.58 a game.
Tierney also created 0.93 chances per 90, second only to Roberts’ 1.23.
In Europe – the games where Celtic are challenged the most – both defenders saw their errors per 90 increase, the difference being that Tierney’s increased to 0.48, whereas Izaguirre’s skyrocketed from their shared domestic number of 0.36 to a much worse 1.17.
Going forwards, the youngster again looked favourable, creating almost twice as many chances through precision per 90 (0.64) than his older counterpart (0.36).
But from all the games that show his maturity, one performance stands out.
“Coming from the Isle of Man, you can play for any – Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales,” Tierney had said, months before he was called into his first Scotland squad in 2016.
KT made his debut against Denmark that March in a 1-0 friendly victory, a match only memorable in hindsight for his and Oliver Burke’s debuts. They were both 18 at the time.
Barry Douglas, Stephen Kingsley, Andrew Robertson, Graeme Shinnie, Lee Wallace – just some of the left backs competing with Tierney for a starting spot for Scotland, some in Gordon Strachan’s thoughts more than others, but all playing for clubs north or south of the border, or in Douglas’s case, on the continent.
Tierney allayed any fears of a defection to England with his competitive debut against Slovakia, a vapid 3-0 away defeat that soured the mood of the Tartan Army to no end.
Injury kept Tierney and Robertson out of the next 3-0 embarrassment, this time at the hands (or heads) of England, but both were fit for the next international in March, unlike Callum Paterson, Scotland’s only standout option at right back.
When Strachan named his squad for the friendly against Canada and the do-or-die qualifier at home to Slovenia, he picked three left backs, with no ready-made replacement for Paterson.
At least, that’s how it seemed.
Robertson, Tierney, Wallace. All different, all the same. At first glance, it appeared the fight for right back would be between Ikechi Anya – a poor man’s Victor Moses – and Russell Martin, an ex-fullback that’d become a regular fixture at centre back.
At Easter Road, Anya got the nod against Canada, and Wallace started at left back, neither of whom convinced at either end of the pitch as Scotland sputtered to a draw, which only deepened the fans’ malaise.
Tierney was given the night off in Edinburgh along with most of the Celtic contingent, but Robertson came on for Wallace in the second half, adding his own brand of dynamism to the fray.
Hampden, then. Half-empty and nervous. Slovenia, another potential banana skin. Strachan’s last stand. The must-win game.
A year on from his debut against Denmark, nineteen-year-old Kieran Tierney was named in the starting line-up for Scotland’s most important and most dreaded international fixture in years – as a right back.
Philipp Lahm, Gianluca Zambrotta, Paolo Maldini, Alvaro Arbeloa, Miguel Layun, and yes, even James Milner: the roll call of naturally right-sided players operating on the left side of defence is sparse, but not empty.
Even Scotland have a history of doing so, as recently as Steven Whittaker and Jackie McNamara, stretching all the way back to the truly world class Tommy Gemmell and Danny McGrain, who switched from right to left to accommodate Sandy Jardine’s place in the side.
But a left-footed fullback on the right? It’s not the done thing. It simply doesn’t feel right.
Jose Mourinho tried it once for Real Madrid against Barcelona, putting Fabio Coentrao at right back to go up against Alexis Sanchez. The theory, beyond a lack of fit and natural alternatives, is that it allows a fullback to tackle an inside-forward with his stronger foot.
Barcelona won 3-1, and Coentrao was atrocious.
The idea of Tierney Right had been mooted for a while by some Scotland fans, the theoretical solution to Scotland’s own Lampard-and-Gerrard conundrum, but no one thought it would actually happen, let alone work.
There was no clever tactical reasoning for Strachan to put Tierney there, no obscenely strong player down Slovenia’s left that needed some special attention. He did it because he knew Tierney was capable, more so than the so-called safer options in the squad.
There was a reason, too, among the fans and the murmurs, beyond numbers and trends, as to why Tierney should play on the right, and Robertson should play on the left – the kid from Douglas simply felt like the safer pair of hands.
And so it unfolded.
Scotland won 1-0 to keep the dream alive, the teenager one of six Celtic players in the starting line-up, and he received as much praise as his clubmate Stuart Armstrong, who won the man of the match award on his debut for a composed performance in midfield.
He knuckled down, did the job, and didn’t let the situation faze him. He handled it all like a seasoned pro, unspectacularly so.
In the aftermath, Tierney was asked how he felt being played out of position. Like most of his interviews, his response was modest with a hint of PR, about how he just did what his manager asked, and how he practiced on the training ground and took all advice on board, all the while looking like he was on his way to school.
The bittersweet problem, as far as Celtic are concerned, is that the kid is already appreciated, and he might just be as good as he seems, which leads to the inevitable questions:
How far can Tierney go? Is it too early to move to a more competitive league?
Will his growth be stunted by staying at Parkhead, even though Brendan Rodgers has committed to the club?
What level is Tierney ready for? And can Celtic really compete in Europe?
More pertinently, what does he, the boyhood Celtic fan, want to do?
Tierney turns 20 in the summer. His contract still has four years to run.
Time is on his side.