FEW youngsters who come through the youth ranks at Celtic manage to make the successful transition from the age-group sides into the first team.

Many will go on to enjoy long careers in the professional game at a decent level elsewhere. But the quality of player they are vying for a start with make it difficult for them to break through and establish themselves as regulars at Parkhead. In modern times, James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Kieran Tierney are arguably the only ones who have really succeeded in doing so.

So why is Stephen Welsh, who has enjoyed an extended run of games at centre half in Brendan Rodgers’ team this year, currently making a far better fist of it than so many of his predecessors and contemporaries? 

The Scot is a talented footballer who always gives his all in training and in matches for the club he grew up supporting as a boy. But could the presence of former England goalie Joe Hart in the squad have been a factor in his rise to prominence as well? He believes it has. 

The Herald: Hart ensured the Glasgow giants, who he joined in a £1m transfer from Spurs in the summer 2021, did a cinch Premiership and Scottish Cup double during his first season in this country and he followed that up last term by helping them to complete a world record eighth domestic treble.

READ MOREFive things Scotland manager Steve Clarke must do before Euro 2024

However, Welsh has seen first hand just how influential the ex-Manchester City, Torino, West Ham United and Burnley keeper is off the park as well as on it.

He revealed that Hart is always urging those around him to try harder, constantly applauding them when they perform and frequently chastising anyone who allows their standards to drop for even a second.

He is indebted to the 75-times capped 36-year-old for the advice, encouragement and support – and even the rollickings as well – which he has received during the past two campaigns.

The defender admitted that he was devastated when he learned last month that his team mate will be hanging up his gloves and retiring from football in May.

 “Joe has been an absolute revelation for us, honestly,” said Welsh. “I think when the news came out, when he said he was going to be retiring at the end of the season, we were all a wee bit gutted to be honest.

“Since he has come in, he has been a role model for the young boys off the pitch. Everybody has seen what he can do on the pitch, but for young lads like me he has been amazing.

“He is the first person to get us up for it and he is the first person to praise you for doing something good. But he can get after us as well, for slacking off a wee bit or whatever. He has been great for us.

“Having Harty behind the defence in goals makes us feel secure. Some of the saves he pulls off are amazing. He is a massive help to us on the pitch and off the pitch.”

READ MORETwo executives behind 'vindictive' Celtic call named by Green Brigade

Welsh, who has started at the back for Celtic in the absence of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Liam Scales in recent weeks, is determined to help the defending Scottish champions to maintain and possibly even increase their one point lead over Rangers, who have a game in hand, at the top of the Premiership table and retain their title in the coming weeks.

But he confessed that he has another reason for wanting to play well in the remaining eight league games of the 2023/24 campaign as well as in the Scottish Cup – he wants to give one of his football mentors a memorable send off.

The Herald: Speaking at Lennoxtown as Rodgers cranked up preparations for the Premiership encounter with bottom-placed Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Sunday, he said: “The fact it is his last season just gives us that added little incentive to do well.

“Harty has won plenty of trophies in his time and I would imagine he will want to go out on a high by winning even more. But we are only looking at what we can control and that is the games that we have coming up. The aim is to go and win all of them.”

Welsh is hopeful that more talented kids will be able to follow him into the first team at Celtic going forward and admitted he had enjoyed being involved in the Scottish Cup game against Buckie Thistle in January alongside four fellow Lennoxtown graduates – Mikey Johnston, Daniel Kelly, Anthony Ralston and Rocco Vata.

READ MOREHuge Green Brigade update ahead of Celtic women's clash

“It’s always good to have the youth players on,” he said. “That is what the club is based on as well, promoting young players to eventually become Champions League players.

“For all five of us to come on and do that was great, and it’s great for the club and the system as well. It shows that there is a pathway through from young players.

“Callum, James and KT were probably the players that I looked up to when they broke through, and now it’s me, Tony and Mikey that are the next few to break through.

“It’s about just building on that every three or four years. Can we get as many youth players up to train with the squad as possible?

“The squad is a bit bigger just now, so the opportunities might be a bit fewer and farther between, but there are lads like DK [Kelly] who came on in the Buckie game to make his debut.

“He’s been excellent in training, and I know we were maybe four or five up at the time, but the gaffer doesn’t just put him on to give him his debut. He’s earned that through hard work and performing well in training.

“I still feel like one of the young players, there are a few older boys. But when there are a few younger players coming through you need to make them feel welcome and make sure they are up to the standards in training as well. From what I can see, the lads have been really good.”

The Herald: