Van Dijk comparisons are well and good, but Celtic need to be careful with youth talent Leo Hjelde
So, it’s Leo Hjelde week in the Scottish press.
John Hughes spoke in glowing terms about the Norwegian starlet, inciting some interesting comments from the player’s father. There’s talk of moves to Southampton [Sun] or Leeds [NTOF], but it seems clear that the 17-year-old is focussed on making his mark with Celtic first.
And that’s important, because honestly, Celtic don’t have the best record with this. What happens next season is absolutely crucial in Leo Hjelde’s development as a player.
Firstly, there are arguments to have him in and around the first-team. That makes a degree of sense, and it’s not like Celtic have been reticent to give opportunities to young defenders before. As Stephen Welsh, and to a far greater extent Kieran Tierney have shown, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
Working in a high-pressure environment might the best thing for Leo Hjelde. At the very least, he’s probably good enough to be in and around the first-team. Before his move to Ross County, Hjelde had featured in match-day squads – albeit, ones like the Hibs game back in January, when Celtic were depleted by Covid-19 [BBC].
Certainly, he’s a natural centre-back, and we don’t have too many of those. Duffy will be off, as might Nir Bitton, who is a defensive midfielder being consistently misused. Beyond that, Ajer is a stand-out, Welsh has recently signed a new deal and Jullien, though talented, is often injured.
We’ll for sure need reinforcements in the summer. But if we get a manager with a proven track record of developing young players, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Hjelde was in and around the first-team next season.
Or: too much too fast for Celtic prospect Leo Hjelde?
If Celtic wanted to play it safe of the Norwegian teenager, there’ll be plenty of clubs willing to take him on loan.
You’d expect Ross County to be first in that queue. Provided they survive in the Premiership this season, John Hughes will be beyond keen to take Hjelde back.
That’s if Celtic provide that opportunity. In his view, Hjelde will be playing for Celtic next term [Record], but there are no guarantees there. From a pragmatic point of view, defenders are so easily defined by high-profile mistakes, or lapses of concentration. That’s especially true of young players, and there’s a real worry that, good as he is, Hjelde might be too green for a starting berth in a big game for the Bhoys next season.
That’s why another loan spell makes sense. If Hjelde can prove himself over an entire campaign, he’ll still only be 18 when he’d return to the Celtic set-up. That would give him a year advantage over Kristoffer Ajer in the promising-Norwegian-centre-back career trajectory.
Celtic, for sure, have options with Leo Hjelde. According to his Dad, he moved to Glasgow’s East End to eventually establish himself in the first-team.
Whether that’s a fast-track process or a slow build is the tough and vital call the next Celtic manager will have to make.
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