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Celtic 1 Ross County 1: Season now just academic, as kids are given rare chance to graduate . . .

THE future starts now.

Gies a hug: Leigh Griffiths' children party on the pitch as Celtic celebrate winning the SPFL Premiership title  in style on Saturday. Picture: SNS
Gies a hug: Leigh Griffiths' children party on the pitch as Celtic celebrate winning the SPFL Premiership title in style on Saturday. Picture: SNS

There is enough uncertainty of outcome in Scottish football in terms of play-off spots, European places, cup semi-finals and the compelling SPFL Championship to hold interest in the present.

Next season has, though, already started for Celtic. Indeed, Neil Lennon, the manager, Peter Lawwell, the chief executive, and Dermot Desmond, the single largest shareholder, will be involved in discussions this week that will lay down a strategy for the next five years.

The crux of the debate will be how Celtic can compete in Europe. Ross County were brilliantly organised, motivated and enterprising on Saturday and thoroughly deserved a point. But Celtic's challenges lie on foreign fields.

The destination is clear if difficult to reach. Lennon spoke at the weekend of the joy and the professional and financial well-being that comes with being in the knockout stages of the Champions League. The route is pock-marked with potholes.

Celtic's business plan has been to buy cannily and sell at a profit while waiting for the academy to produce talents that can immediately make an impact at Premiership level. It has its inherent flaws.

Celtic are buying at a level where it is very difficult to find the undiscovered gems. Their high success rate is a credit to the club's resources in terms of football knowledge.

The academy argument is more difficult. Celtic do not just have to produce youngsters but ones who are able to take their opportunity without hesitation. The Dundee United cadre of youth has been rightly praised this season but they have been allowed to make mistakes in the first team and remain there.

This would not be allowed to happen at Celtic, where competition for spots ensures there can be no patience with even one poor performance.

Michael Tidser, at 24, is a former captain of the Celtic under-19 team who did not make one appearance for the club at senior level yet has endured to become a fine SPFL player for Ross County.

"So many boys left and made a career for themselves elsewhere and I was no different," said Tidser who left initially for Swedish side Ostersunds in 2008. "It was hard to leave the club you love but you need to pick yourself up and have the mental drive to do well."

He had a word of encouragement at the end of the match for Liam Henderson, the 17-year-old who faced up to him in midfield on Saturday.

"I told him he should take his chance because it's not every kid that gets an opportunity," he said.

Tidser pointed out that the gap at the top of the league gave Celtic the leeway to experiment with youngsters, with Eoghan O'Connell, the 18-year-old centre back from Cork, joining Henderson in the first team on Saturday.

"When I was a young boy Celtic were battling it out with Rangers at the top of the league so there was a reluctance to put in kids," he said. "In my day Thomas Gravesen was at the club and he couldn't even get a game. That tells you everything you need to know - he played for Real Madrid."

Tidser added: "Shunsuke Nakamura, Scott Brown and Barry Robson were all there and it was good to train with them. There were quality players who weren't even playing in the first team so you had the likes of Massimo Donati, Derek Riordan and Gravesen in the reserves and I had a few games with them which was an experience."

Of Henderson, he said: "He looks ready to play at this level. I'm sure Neil Lennon will keep pushing him on. He isn't frightened to take the ball and that's a big thing at a young age but the experienced players around about him will help."

O'Connell grew into the game after a hesitant start. "It was one of those games, a debut, where you don't need to do anything spectacular," the Celtic youngster said. "I did that."

He added: "I've been involved a lot on the fringe of things, I have been patient, my chance has come and hopefully I have taken it."

He admitted the elevation of Henderson had been an inspiration. The central defender, a cousin of Paul O'Connell, the British and Irish Lions lock, has an understanding of what it will take to make an impression at Celtic, admitting a breakthrough was "difficult" but not impossible given hard work and a bit of fortune.

The outstanding performer on a lacklustre day for the champions was Virgil van Dijk, the very epitome of the Celtic transfer model.

The Dutch central defender was imperious on occasion, almost seeming to give Melvin de Leeuw a start on one occasion before cruising up to rob his countryman of the ball.

He then went on a series of excursions on the park, ending up finally at centre-forward as Celtic tried to win the match. Strong, technically assured, quick and capable of scoring with head and foot, Van Dijk was bought from Groningen for £2.6m.

It is hugely difficult to find that sort of value in the modern transfer market but Celtic have done it with Van Dijk, Fraser Forster, Mikael Lustig, Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and others.

It is, though, proving even more difficult to hang on to them for an extended period. This gritty truth will prove the subject of much discussion this week as Celtic prepare their five-year plan.

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