Playing for Glasgow Celtic is an honour. An honour that very few footballers who pull on the famous hoops jersey every truly understand. Stephen Welsh (Welshy) is not one of those footballers.
The young man from Coatbridge - born this side of the millennium - grew up supporting Celtic, as many do in his hometown, but incredibly, at the age of 21, is currently enjoying his thirteenth year with his boyhood club.
Welshy worked his way up through both the club's youth and development squads, before securing a loan spell at Greenock Morton, as he aimed to get first team experience at the Championship side in the 2019/20 campaign. His time at Cappielow Park was cut short however as the young defender was recalled in January 2020, after making only 18 appearances.
It was Neil Lennon who gave Welsh his debut the next month in a hard fought and physical encounter away at Hamilton, as a flurry of late goals helped Celtic to a 4-1 win on their way to claiming nine league titles in a row.
Surprisingly - considering the defensive performances of those around him - Welsh had to wait until October, and the first Glasgow derby match of the season, to make his home debut in a disappointing 2-0 loss to Rangers last season. The young defender went on to make a further ten appearances, grabbing his first goal with a smart header against Motherwell at Parkhead.
In a hugely disappointing campaign, Welsh's breakthrough as a reliable option at centre-back was one of the few positives as the club entered the 2021/22 season still looking for a new manager.
Improvements under Postecoglou
Adapting to a new gaffer after such a forgettable season was always going to be a task that took time, especially with the intensity and ethos that comes with an Ange Postecoglou team setup.
Interestingly, since the early season setback against Midtjylland, Welsh has started five matches in the SPL, Europa League and the League Cup conceding only twice. Both of those goals came in the cup game against Hearts where he himself was actually on the scoresheet with a beautiful header in a 3-2 win.
His recent performance against AZ, where all his best attributes were on show; his reading of the game; composure on the ball and strength in the tackle, was of a maturity of a man many years his senior. And without being critical of new signing, Carl Starfelt - who admittedly has had a few shaky moment in his early Celtic career - Welsh has looked like the one who is an established multimillion pound international defender alongside him.
His improvements are there for everyone to see, no less Ange Postecoglou, who said after his recent Scotland U-21 call up:
"He wants to learn he wants to get better. There’s a massive upside in him, and we’re challenging him as a young player to take some responsibility because of the way we play... "I'm delighted for him, it’s a well-deserved call-up and I'm thrilled with how he’s going at the moment."
Welshy, like the Parkhead faithful, is clearly enjoying the new brand of football that the manager has the team playing and is crystal clear on his role in the team. Speaking in the Celtic view before the St Mirren match, he said:
"When we’re playing out from the back and pressing on the front foot, sometimes you can be left 1v1 or 2v1 at the back. But that’s how we want to play, we want to play attacking football, so myself and the other defenders always need to be switched on for the counter-attack."
As the Kyogo's, Turnbull's and Abada's of this world rightly get the plaudits for their exciting role in Celtic's new style of play, I like to reserve some special praise for the 'Coatbridge Cannavaro'.
"Celtic is the only club you want to play for as a kid, especially being a fan, that’s the dream to go and play." - Stephen Welsh
What have you made of Welsh's start to the season? Let us know in the comments below.