A title-winner with Celtic back in 1987-88, prolific hitman Andy Walker netted 65 times for the Hoops during two stints. However it’s not the past, but the bright future of Brendan Rodgers’ current crop which the former Parkhead hero is focused on.
Ladbrokes News sat down with the Glaswegian ace to discuss all things Celtic, from the key men he feels have been unsung aces, to the club’s treble dream and the importance of new signing Kouassi Eboue. Grab yourself a cuppa and read on…
Ladbrokes News: Times are very good at Celtic Park right now. Understandably a lot of the plaudits have gone to the likes of Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair. But who would you say have been some of the unsung heroes of the campaign for the Hoops?
Andy Walker: I think Brendan Rodgers has really enthused everyone at the club, and that’s had everyone performing at a higher level than last season. Even when Kieran Tierney got injured and there were worries about how he’d be replaced, [Emilio] Izaguirre came in, and it didn’t feel like anything was missing.
Tom Rogic is one of many players who has really impressed me this season, especially in the early part of the campaign. Stuart Armstrong’s now in his favoured position, and he’s another who has been very effective coming forward.
For me, Celtic’s biggest strengths are from middle to front. Scott Brown keeps things ticking over, and he’s a really experienced presence in a side that looks so dynamic this season.
However, for me, I still think Scott Sinclair has been the top performer this season, in terms of quality and consistency.
LN: A word on Dembele, though – what do you think makes him such a top-class talent? And do you think he’s going to keep improving under Brendan Rodgers?
AW: Obviously his pace and finishing are key attributes, but I also really like Dembele’s attitude. His performances have meant there’s a lot of attention surrounding him for a young player. But he really believes in what the manager is building at Celtic, and is a really focused team player.
You can see how much he enjoys playing in a side that wins every week, and he’s relished the European experience too. He’s played and scored in the Champions League, and doing that gives you a real hunger to try and build on that, and impress on the biggest stage.
LN: You have to go back to 2001 for the last time Celtic last won the domestic treble. This weekend they look to get a step closer with victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup Fifth Round. Are you tipping this to be the year the treble returns to Parkhead?
AW: I certainly think so. Celtic have faced all sorts of challenges this season and met them all head-on. As for the Ladbrokes Premiership – they’re obviously far ahead of the competition this season, and I think they’ll be motivated to keep up their level of performance, with the unbeaten season in sight.
This group of players have really bought into Brendan’s philosophy, and as a group, they have a real desire to win. There’ll be no hint of them taking the Inverness game lightly.
With no European football in the next few months, the squad will be able to focus totally on getting the job done in the domestic competitions. So there’s no reason to think we won’t see them do the clean sweep of trophies.
LN: One big talking point has been Celtic’s unbeaten league record (W 23, D 1, L 0). There are 14 games remaining in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Do you think they’ll end the league campaign unbeaten? And is there any reason they can’t win all of the remaining games?
AW: I think there’s a good chance they’ll go undefeated, because their attitude on a weekly basis has been terrific.
I was involved in the Celtic side of 1995-96 under Tommy Burns when we only lost once – though we sadly still didn’t win the title! – and I know how tough it is to try to keep a very long unbeaten run going, but this crop of players have the attributes to achieve it.
It’s certainly far from done. There could be an individual error, or an opposition side playing out of their skin, which could scupper that dream. But we’re in February now, and Celtic have a real target in the unbeaten record. And the way they’re playing, it certainly doesn’t look beyond them.
This is an ambitious side, so I don’t think it’ll be the only record which interests them. I’m sure if they keep up this form into the closing weeks, the squad will be aiming for ‘most goals scored’ records, ‘highest winning points margin’ and so on.
LN: There are a number of bright young talents continuing to come through the youth setup at Parkhead – the likes of Chris Millar, Jack Aitchison, Kieran Tierney etc. Do you think we’ll see more of them as the season continues?
AW: I’d like to think so. And when Brendan has rotated and brought in young guys, they’ve done well. Liam Henderson came into the side and scored at St Johnstone last weekend, and Patrick Roberts has been very lively in his last few starts.
Brendan’s a manager who will give these guys an opportunity. That was evident when he brought Aitchison on against Hearts. He’s still just 16-years-old, but there’s no doubt he’s an immense talent.
Another player I’d mention is Jamie McCart. He’s on loan at Inverness right now, but he featured against Motherwell for Celtic earlier this season, and he’s another I predict will have a very bright future.
But it’s a balancing act. The boss will want to give the young guys some game-time, but the longer this unbeaten run goes on, and the further Celtic get in the cup, he might be wary of tampering with a winning side.
LN: On that note, why do you think the Hoops have been so successful in developing young talent?
AW: There’s a long tradition of it. In the past 15 years, you’ve had the likes of Shaun Maloney and Aiden McGeady coming through. I grew up watching Charlie Nicholas, who came through the youth team here, and played alongside a legendary one-club man in Paul McStay.
Right now there’s another excellent group coming through. I do think with the quality in the squad, it’s going to be tough for the young players to really establish themselves in the first-team at Parkhead.
You have to be top-class to make it at Celtic, but then again some of these guys are. Right now you have Tierney who’s been getting regular game-time ahead of an established international player in Izaguirre.
LN: The club made one signing in the January window – Kouassi Eboue from FC Krasnodar. The 19-year-old hasn’t featured in the first team just yet, but what do you think fans can look forward to from him?
AW: He’s got bags of potential. I think he’s a signing made with one eye on the Champions League.
Celtic did well to reach the Group Stage this season, but they conceded quite a few goals along the way, and I think having an imposing midfielder with experience in Europe – which Eboue already does – will mean he really comes into his own in these continental ties.
He’s cost £2m, but he has all his best years ahead of him, and I think it will look like a bargain fee when we see his potential shining through in the Champions League.
Celtic host Inverness in the Scottish Cup on Saturday, with 1/6 for the Bhoys to extend their 12-game winning streak.
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