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Celtic 2 Hearts 0: only remaining mystery is what to do with Celtic's underused youngsters

THE league has been won.

James Forrest celebrates after scoring Celtic's second goal in injury time. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
James Forrest celebrates after scoring Celtic's second goal in injury time. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

It is official. Fiacre Kelleher stared out from the match programme on Saturday as he reflected on Celtic's under-17 side winning the under-19 championship. His fresh face shone with the hope that this was merely the first title in the Irish lad's career with the club. His words could be scrutinised at some leisure because the callow Hearts youths could not prevail against the big team facing them at a chilly Celtic Park.

Like Kelleher, they were trying to play above their age group. They were failing in the face of not only muscular experience but superior technique. The Hearts team were so young that one could be forgiven for believing that the early kick-off was arranged so they could all visit Santa in Glasgow before being back in Edinburgh for bedtime.

The 20-year-olds such as Kevin McHattie, Callum Tapping and Jamie Walker were joined by teenagers such as Sam Nicholson (18), Dale Carrick (19) and Callum Paterson (19). They were not spanked but they were almost routinely beaten. Experienced internationalists such as Emilio Izaguirre, Kris Commons, Joe Ledley and Scott Brown dictated both the flow and the outcome of this match.

But there was the spring of youth, too, in the Celtic team and it raised a question of just what Neil Lennon will do in the second half of a season that will be marked by another championship. His plan is to recruit in January and bed in players for the Champions League qualifiers that comprise the most important part of the club's season. However, injury and the possible departure of players must offer the chance for youngsters to make a case to the Celtic manager. Tom Rogic, John Herron, Bahrudin Atajic, Joe Chalmers and Darnell Fisher will be among those less than grief-stricken at any thinning of the ranks above them through either departures or injury.

Fisher, who played on Saturday in the absence of Mikael Lustig, who faces months out after hip surgery, has promise, pace and a crisp pass. But does he have a future at the club? The answer will be made evident in the near future but the 19-year-old Englishman is not burdened by any crippling shyness.

"There is motivation for me to stay in the team but I know it's going to be hard with Adam [Matthews] and Mika here," he said. "They are two internationalists but I need to keep pushing and learning from them. I feel confident. That's the type of person I am and you need to be like that coming into this team. You have to try to express yourself when you get the chance."

He has been helped by Lustig - an excellent performer who is becoming a highly lucrative asset - and by a genuine Celtic great. "Mikael has been great with me," Fisher said. "I talk to him a lot and was asking what it was like to play against [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi. He gives me loads of tips and is always telling me how important it is to drive the game from the full-back position. It's important to keep getting on the ball and picking passes."

He added: "The gaffer and Danny McGrain are always telling me that. I never knew about Danny's career before I signed for Celtic but he tells us about how good he was all the time. I heard even Pele was talking about him, so that's when you know you are a good player. I've seen a few videos of Danny and he's all right."

All this was said in good spirit but it points to an undeniable truth for Celtic. The Quality Street Kids - with McGrain a tasty performer with a hard centre - were a phenomenon that provided Celtic with the strength to march into the 1970s.

It is easy to state that there needs to a rebirth of such precocious talent but it is much more difficult to implement. Chalmers, for example, seems a steady, strong full-back but should he, could he, be picked over Lustig, Emilio Izaguirre or Adam Matthews? Dylan McGeouch is tricky with fine technique. But how can he displace Commons?

Dylan McGowan, who played so obdurately in defence for Hearts and whose header in the last minute was cleared off the line with the score 1-0, also articulated another truth about his compatriot Rogic, an Australian internationalist on the periphery of the champions' first team. "If he wants to come on loan to us we'll take him," McGowan said. "He's a great player. Hopefully, he breaks into the Celtic team soon, as that would be good for our national team."

The maroon ranks were sprinkled with raw recruits but also carried gaps after a series of casualties. "For the young guys, it's a negative side of playing first-team football maybe too soon. They pick up a lot of injuries, just because of the sheer intensity of it," said McGowan, all of 22.

The perfect blend of homegrown talent, technique and influence came from James Forrest, also 22, who came on at half-time to provide a threatening width to the champions and finished expertly to end any possible doubt about the outcome.

Hours later Aberdeen beat Inverness Caledonian Thistle, thus extending Celtic's lead at the top of the SPFL to 10 points. The league is over. It is not yet official but the only intrigue for Celtic is how Lennon uses the freedom afforded by such a gap to address the reality of having to qualify for the Champions League.

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