Best of the best

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After reading Ramon Vega’s recent comments on his regret about leaving Celtic, albeit fifteen years ago, it got me thinking about former Celtic players in a similar position. When it comes to leaving Celtic prematurely, he is not alone, even if some players have failed to acknowledge it.

Vega is but one example of a player drafted in in the short term with little expected of him. Yet he turned out to be an influential player during a very brief period under Martin O’Neill.

Apparently Celtic had tried to procure his services prior to that season but Vega turned down the opportunity. He later accepted a loan move midway through season 2000-2001.

In 26 appearances he scored 4 goals for the club and picked up a treble into the bargain. This still wasn’t enough to convince him to stay on though.

Instead he followed the money and went to Gianluca Vialli’s Watford, opting for cash over trophies. That move lasted one season and eventually he was shipped out.

He found himself playing for Ligue 2 French side Créteil, where he would end his career at the age of 33. Fairly early by even by standards back then.

In some ways, getting a large payday in his second last season wasn’t such a bad move financially. The fact that he regrets leaving Celtic though suggests what many fans though at the time.

He could have had another shot at glory the following year and maybe even retired with Celtic. The decision he eventually made he regrets, but he isn’t the first ex-Celtic player to do this.

For other former Celts it’s been a mixed bag of success. Many have come through the ranks and at the first sign of progress, headed for so called greener pastures.

Historically, Celtic have been criticised for not stumping up the cash. When you go back to the era when the club was run by the Kelly’s and co, that isn’t much of a surprise.

Having said that, the way business was conducted back then, I wouldn’t know who to believe. I mean in those days you had the Kelly, White, Grant, McGinn and Farrell stronghold in one corner and in the other you had jokers like Charlie Nicholas or Frank McAvennie.

In the era of change for Celtic, i.e. Fergus McCann onwards, club business was moving into new territory. McCann was a tough and shrewd businessman who generally did it his way or not at all but he had a plan.

He encountered the infamous “three amigos” during that period and stood for none of their nonsense. Whilst the fans were in their debt to Fergus for saving the club, they idolised Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete and Paulo Di Canio at the same time.

This was a forward line to get your juices flowing if every there was one. They all left within months of one another with money at the heart of most of it.

They each had different experiences following those moves. Van Hooijdonk (money demands) moved to Nottingham Forrest in March of his final season and ended up getting relegated but he experienced an upwards turn in his career with a moves to Vitesse, Benfica, Feyenoord, Fenerbahçe, NAC Breda and back to Feyenoord once again.

Di Canio (also money demands) went to Sheffield Wednesday in a swap deal with Regi Blinker coming in the opposite direction. Di Canio carved out a relatively successful career following that move to England, moving onward to West Ham and Charlton Athletic before winding up his playing days back home in Italy with Lazio, his first club, and then minnows Cisco Roma.

As for Cadete, well his so called ‘mental state’ didn’t really wash with many Celtic fans. Devastated as we were, it was clear that he wanted to move, whether that motive was money or adjusting to life in Scotland.

For a free transfer, he certainly gave Celtic a shot in the arm with his goal return even if it resulted in no trophies. I don’t even think Jorge would argue that Celtic was a career peak for him.

Had he or any of the other ‘amigos’ stayed on for the season that followed, who knows what devastation they would have unleashed. Perhaps if they had we may never have seen Henrik Larsson in the Hoops.

Whilst each of those players left on bad terms they had their own post-Celtic story to tell. They netted Celtic on average about £4m each in transfer fees which 20 years ago was pretty good money for the club.

Let’s not forget about the goal tally these players amassed in a short space of time. Van Hooijdink – 52 goals in 96 appearances; Di Canio – 15 goals in 37 appearances; Cadete – 33 goals in 44 appearances.

Cadete easily had the worst career path following his Celtic exit, whilst Di Canio and Van Hooijdonk had positive experiences right up until the end of their playing days.

These guys were markers for the future. Lessons learned, money earned.

Celtic would still fumble matters with players though. Though let’s face it, footballers aren’t the easiest of ‘personalities’ to deal with in business.

Another player who left Celtic that summer was none other than current assistant coach at the club, John Collins. He became Celtic’s first Bosman departure in 1996.

That took him to AS Monaco, a European force at the time. After two years there, he moved on to Everton and later, Fulham.

To be fair to Collins, he was a fantastic player at Celtic and had earned his free transfer. After six gruelling years at a the club, mostly bad years, he deserved more from his career.

In the years that followed, Mark Viduka would become the another player to make a name for himself at Celtic only to exit when he had had enough. His arrival was surrounded with controversy following a messy departure form Croatia Zagreb and a move that had looked to have collapsed.

Still, he made a valuable contribution in a season and a half at the club. He scored 27 goals in 37 appearances at Celtic but before too long he would be plying his trade with money laden Leeds United.

Once more, Celtic had lost a marvellous player to a higher paying employer. In the midst of all this, a new era was taking shape with higher valued players filling the ranks at Celtic Park.

New management began to reshape what was already in place. There would also be key additions to the team as Celtic went from manager to manager over a short time.

The club needed stability and they had one player whose loyality, relationship and professionalism will never ever be questioned. If ever there was a model professional it was Henrik Larsson.

Either side of his 7 years at the club, as well as during, there were players coming and going which have never equalled what he did. A few have come close, but it just goes to show it is more than ability that makes a player special.

You must have that rapport with the fans. The style of play that wins you praise from around the globe and earns you the kind love you can only get from a particular kind of club and fan base.

When guys like Simon Donnelly, Mark Burchill and Liam Miller were playing with Larsson, they were looking for more money as well. Larsson was rewarded more than any other Celt in history.

The difference is that he had earned it through more than just one good goal, one good match or one good season. He did it across the board like a true professional which is something of a rareity in the modern day.

Of those players who have come and gone at Celtic, undervalued what they were part of at the time and later moved on to bleaker times, take note. The grass is not always greener.

Now James Forrest looks set to go the way players such as Shaun Maloney and Stylian Petrov did. The deal offered to him has been rejected and now he is prepared to join the list of players who probably have it made at Celtic but see bright lights in the distance.

To be the best of the best you must evaluate what you have before you consider what’s on offer and where that might lead. If your desire lies elsewhere get good advice or you too might be sharing the regret that Ramon Vega has come to know.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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2 thoughts on “Best of the best

  1. Stan signed a new contract despite wanting to leave which meant Celtic got £6M for him. Forrest is never going to fulfil early potential and wouldn’t really be a big loss.

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