Mousa Dembélé’s brace in Celtic’s surprise draw against Manchester City in midweek didn’t so much announce his arrival as remind the footballing world he’s still knocking around. It reminded us that he’s the same player in whom Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Chelsea (among many others) all reportedly registered an interest when his contract expired at Fulham last season. But instead of making an immediate jump from England’s second tier to one of the European giants of his choosing, Dembélé instead opted to take the scenic route, and it’s Celtic who are reaping the rewards.
The Championship’s reputation as a scrappy league is not unfounded; rare is it that the genuinely talented forwards get sufficient time on the ball to differentiate themselves from the rest. Indeed, in a league where centre forwards like Chris Martin and Daryl Murphy — both prolific but still ultimately rubbish — are regarded among the real goalscoring stars, it’s extremely hard for the more gifted players to rise to the top.
And yet, that’s exactly what Dembélé managed to do. His 15-goal haul in a struggling Fulham side was a great return for a player who was still only in his teens, but it wasn’t sufficiently spectacular to warrant such attention on its own. He’d managed to differentiate himself on other, more important grounds: His excellent technical skill, his intelligent movement, generally the kinds of thing that separate the Championship lifers from those who make the Premier League grade. It’s little wonder that the biggest clubs were swarming.
It was certainly an unusual decision on the part of the player to turn down some of Europe’s best clubs in favour of a move to the Scottish Premier League. To be sure, plenty of talented players have played at Celtic over the last few years, with Virgil van Dijk and Victor Wanyama two notables who’ve gone on to have successful careers in England’s top flight. But the former arrived from Dutch minnows Groningen, and the latter from Belgium’s Beerschot. Unlike Dembélé, they’d seemingly failed to register on the radars of any big clubs. It’s possible that Celtic haven’t signed a player of such talent since Henrik Larsson arrived from Feyenoord in 1997.
Naturally, it begs the simple question: Why did he choose Celtic? It is perhaps a mark of the player’s sublime confidence. North of the border, he was guaranteed regular football, not just in the league but also on the European stage. And, as hard as it may be for us to believe, the presence of Brendan Rodgers may have sealed the deal. The real tragedy of Rodgers is not his cringe-inducing chumminess in and of itself, but the fact that he’s so genuine in trying to foster such matey relationships with his players. But in spite of all, he remains a good coach, and it’s understandable the combination of game time, development, and an encouraging environment would prove attractive for a young player.
The flip side is that Dembélé is at risk of becoming a perennial wonderkid. The SPL is currently at a rather low ebb, and the hatful of goals he’s certain to score against a parade of poor teams this season isn’t going to impress any of his future suitors. Unless he can keep performing in the Champions League, the potential for self-promotion in Scotland appears rather limited. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dembélé was looking to swiftly move on to bigger things. Unfortunately for Celtic, it’s unlikely that he’ll stick around as long as the aforementioned Larsson did.
However, that, of course, doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy his performances in the interim. Whatever the strange constellation of events that brought one of the brightest young talents in Britain to Celtic, the 20-year-old will surely be there for at least the season. And who knows, a few further European upsets could follow as a result.