THE chance to stake a claim for a place in the Celtic starting line-up before the new season gets underway may have been cruelly denied him by yet another injury.

But those who have seen Mikey Johnston in action for club and country in the past 12 months remain convinced he can resurrect his Parkhead career once he has regained full fitness in the forthcoming campaign.

Speaking at the Scottish champions’ training camp in Portugal on Thursday, Brendan Rodgers revealed that the winger had a back issue which would sideline him until October.

The 24-year-old, who was called up by the Republic of Ireland earlier this year after impressing on loan at Primeira Liga outfit Vitoria de Guimaraes and made four appearances for his adopted homeland, had hoped to establish himself at Celtic in the 2023/24 season.

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The departure of Jota for Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia in a record-equalling £25m transfer earlier this month has created a vacancy out wide in Rodgers’ side.

And Johnston was optimistic he could feature for the first team on regular basis as the Northern Irishman was the manager who had handed him his first team debut when he was just a teenager in 2017.

The setback he has suffered is a cruel blow.

However, Ray Houghton, the Glasgow-born Ireland great who now works as a pundit and co-commentator with RTE Sport, was impressed by the impact the forward made in the internationals against Latvia, France, Greece and Gibraltar last term.

Houghton, a boyhood Celtic supporter who grew up in Castlemilk, believes Johnston has finally come of age after a difficult few years and has a great deal to offer the treble winners both domestically and in Europe in the coming months.

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“He reminds me of Aiden McGeady when I watch him,” he said. “He is someone with a bit of ability about him, who is always looking to take players on. He is very positive, he excites you, he gets you on the edge of your seat.

“I know he has had his injury problems and they have probably hampered him over the last two or three years, but he has done well for Ireland. For a lad who has only recently come in to the Ireland set-up, he has fitted in really well. He looks like he is very confident in what he is doing.

“And the Ireland manager Stephen Kenny certainly likes him. That can sometimes be half the battle for a young player. You need someone to back you and he has got that.

“He came on in Gibraltar in a Euro 2024 qualifier in Dublin last month and made a real difference. France, the Netherlands and Greece only beat Gibraltar 3-0 in qualifying so they weren’t getting massacred by the teams they were playing. We were struggling to break them down.

“But when Mikey came on at the start of the second-half we looked a far better team, much more threatening. He changed things from our point of view.  He opened the scoring and we went on to win 3-0. I was impressed.”

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Houghton continued: “I have seen many players get injury things when they are at a young age over the years. What it does is knock their confidence. I am sure that happened with Mikey. It is such a shame that he has picked up this back injury.

“But being loaned out to Portugal has clearly helped him regain his self-belief. He has worked in a different environment, played in different kind of games against players with a different mentality and experienced a different way of life. None of that is easy to handle and he has.”

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Houghton saw how Rodgers brought the best out in the likes of James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Kieran Tierney during his first spell as Celtic manager and is certain he can help Johnston to develop and mature.

“I hope he gets his chance,” he said. “I have watched quite a bit of Celtic in recent seasons. Their fans like exciting players like Mikey. He can do things that maybe other players can’t.

“I first came across Brendan years ago when he was first coming in to coaching at Chelsea reserves. Brendan is a very good coach. We are quick to judge when a manager doesn’t do well over the course of a season and forget what he has done over a number of seasons.

“But he was very successful at Celtic in his first spell and did a great job at Leicester. For whatever reason, lack of funding, players being sold, it was much more difficult for him last season. But he can build on what Ange Postecoglou did.

“Ange did a brilliant job, he was phenomenal. The players really bought into what he was doing and hopefully they will do the same with Brendan again now. It is an exciting time to be a Celtic supporter

“I think Brendan likes flair players and I am sure that he will give Mikey a chance. He won’t pre-judge what he can do, will want to see for himself what he is capable of. Once he has done that he will make his call.”

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Tomas da Dunha, an analyst and commentator with Eleven Sports television channel and TSF Radio in Portugal, saw a great deal of Johnston in action for Vitoria last season and also expects the winger to make a major impression at Celtic when he has recovered from his back injury.

He refused to rule out the Estadio D. Afonso Henriques club coming back in for the Ireland internationalist if he is not given an extended run at Parkhead. 

“Mikey has a lot of qualities,” he said. “He has good technique, he can make space, he has the vision to make a pass. He wasn’t always a starter for Vitoria, but he had four or five games where he was probably the best player on the field. He was a unique talent in the squad really important for the team.

“After the four big clubs, Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Benfica and Braga, I would say Vitoria is the biggest club in Portugal. You are under a lot of pressure when you play for them. Mikey showed he had no problem with that pressure.

“I know he had a lot of injuries earlier in his career, but he had no problems last season. He was in good physical condition all of the time. He became very popular with supporters because of his attitude and ability.

“Vitoria are playing in the Conference League this season and it is really important for them to do well in Europe. Their biggest rivals are Braga and they have made it through to Champions League qualifying this season. So they want to do well. I think taking Mikey back would be a good option for Vitoria.”

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