AFTER a lifetime of watching football I felt I was entitled to think I knew a little about how this game is played. One night in the Nou Camp in October, 2012 though, rendered it threadbare. Like thinking you know about Formula One because you hold a drivers licence.  

It was the night Celtic came within a few seconds of securing a 1-1 draw against what I consider to have been the best iteration of the Barcelona team that won four European Cups between 2005 and 2015. My seat was in the second from front row and so I was resigned to what I thought would be a frustrating evening, unable really to get a grasp on the game’s patterns and trajectories. Not that there was much nuance in the game. Almost all of it was being played in the area between the centre circle and Celtic’s 18-yard box.

For the first time though, due to my pitch-level location, I could observe how Andres Iniesta went about his business on a football field. As Barcelona spent almost the entire second half chasing a winner the entire Barcelona midfield were playing as auxiliary attackers with Lionel Messi darting here and there across the width of the penalty box to pick up short passes from Iniesta and Xavi.

When I say Messi was darting it doesn’t really do it justice. This player moves at such speed, even in real-time, that you would need one of those wildlife cameras they use to slow the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. I was calling for a water break after 20 minutes of simply watching him.

I also caught glimpses of Iniesta’s mesmeric qualities. There isn’t really a verb to describe what the Barcelona magician does with the ball when it’s played to his feet. It’s something between a caress and a nudge. As it comes to him he re-directs it without seeming to have moved a muscle. He seems to know exactly how the ball will behave no matter how fast it comes at him and to know how much pace to take from it to re-direct it to his intended target. It’s a sort of sleight of foot. When you think he’s still in possession of it he’s already moving and you realise – too late if you’re a defender – that he doesn’t have it at all and that it’s now with Messi and that you’re effectively following a ghost ball. Now you see it; now you don’t.

It was the night too that I began to appreciate just what a good right-back Michael Lustig was. The fitness levels – of both body and mind – required to hold your ground and not buckle as Europe’s three most inventive players assailed you are of a NASA standard. Lustig, for the most part, just about held his territory. It was the best game I think I ever saw him play for Celtic, once you factor in the occasion and the quality of his direct opponents.

I’m still not sure why our big, mad Swedish defender was allowed to leave Celtic in 2019. My last memory of him was that footage shot from behind Craig Gordon in the Scottish Cup final as he began celebrating the winning goal against Hearts even before Odsonne Edouard had struck the ball. There he was this summer Euros putting in a quality shift for Sweden as they held Spain in Seville. How we could have done with him last season when big characters were required to steady a rocking ship.

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How we could still do with him; perhaps not so much as a regular right-back but as a mentor to Tony Ralston to help cement the young defender’s place in the side, taking turns to swap with him during intense game spells in the course of the season. That Lustig can also perform well in the centre of the defence would have provided other options too.   

Ralston’s performances for Celtic since the start of the season have been nothing other than heroic, and I use that word advisedly. He is still only 22 years of age, yet seems to have been around for much longer and without ever having enjoyed the confidence of the Celtic support. He made his debut five years ago and has since been loaned out to Queen’s Park, Dundee United and St Johnstone.

Unlike Callum McGregor at Notts County and Kristoffer Ajer at Kilmarnock, his sub-contract work was not especially rewarding. It seemed as though, in the Brendan Rodgers era, Celtic supporters were looking for something more glamorous and more immediately sparkling and Ralston – diligent, hard-working but perhaps a little ponderous – never seemed to fit the bill.

The pressure a young Scottish player must deal with in trying to earn a Celtic jersey is immense. More so, if he’s been reared by the club. The social media platforms as well as his own social networks mean that he picks up all the chatter around Celtic; every bat-squeak and rumour. Players from an older generation would insulate themselves from harshness by simply not reading newspapers or avoiding television analysis. By not frequenting the pubs and clubs of other people’s youth they could be shielded – to an extent – from unkind words.

For a 22-year-old in the age of multi-media platforms that make the lives of young people unfold in a wide-screen cinema that simply isn’t possible. Tony Ralston will have known what was being said about him: that he lacked the skill and positional sense to play as a modern right-back; that his distribution was erratic. And the ultimate Glasgow abjuration, a mixture of kindness and sorrow: “Good luck to the boy, but he just won’t do.”

Well; he’ll do now. He’ll more than do. Along with Callum McGregor and Kyogo Furuhashi he has been a stand-out performer in Celtic’s encouraging start to the season. And you’ve no idea how much it pleases me to state this. When one of your own – a West of Scotland boy who’s been with Celtic man and boy – suffers you suffer that little bit more with him. And when he plays well your delight is a little heightened.

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Last night against AZ Alkmaar all the qualities of his first few appearances this season were on display: bravery on the ball; fine positional sense to cut out danger in the six-yard box and the nous to puncture Dutch possession by purchasing fouls, knowing that he’d be battered in the process. At the end of a high-energy game, he was carrying the ball deep into opposition territory to ensure Celtic negotiated the perils of injury-time.

Ange Postecoglou seems to possess wisdom in how he treats his charges and the way he handles this young player will be an important test of his management. You don’t spend millions on a ready-made international like Josip Juranovic to deploy him as cover, but nor can you signal to a young player who’s given everything he has for you that he was just keeping the position warm for someone else. This could be another 60-game plus season for Celtic, so there is lots of game-time to go around. And you get the impression that Postecoglu has the gift of teasing out all of a player’s talent. Thus, you have a sense that Ralston will continue to improve.

Football is a brutal business and the Celtic supporters, for all our social outreach and more-than-just-a-club conceit, are just as reactionary as everyone else in our desire for victory at all costs. Tony Ralston though, has earned the right to play at Ibrox on August 29. And I hope, by the end of the season, he’ll be established in and around the first team, even if he doesn’t feature every week.