I remember watching Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports about 10 years ago and noting the goal-scoring exploits of Callum McGregor at Notts County.

I knew vaguely that he was a Celtic youth prospect and that great things had been expected of him from a very young age. 

Yet here he was plodding away at a third-tier English side and probably destined soon to come back up the road and maybe a permanent berth, and I mean no disrespect, at a team like Motherwell

Except he wasn’t plodding away at all. He was knocking them in from all angles at Meadow Lane and sitting alongside him in midfield was one current Manchester City star Jack Grealish, on loan from Aston Villa at the time.

When you talk about English League One it immediately suggests a low-quality backwater. But it’s really not. The professional game down south is the most competitive and consistently demanding football environment on the planet. 

If you are scoring regularly in that division it probably means you can do the business in most other top-tier leagues in Europe outside of maybe the top five of Italy, England, Spain, France and Germany.  

In an interview in The Guardian prior to Scotland’s European Championship group stage game with England at Wembley in 2021, McGregor recalled his days at Notts County fondly. 

"When you get sent on loan, 90 per cent of people might think that’s you done. I was going there to showcase my talent and try to force myself into the team when I got back," he said.

And then, speaking of Grealish, he observed: "We had a good season aat pretty much the start of our football journeys. He has fulfilled all the potential he was showing at that age and is maturing into a really good leader. It’s brilliant to see."

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Less than 10 years later the 29-year-old has become one of Celtic's greatest ever captains and an example to all young players on how a modern professional should conduct himself on and off the pitch. Grealish meanwhile – in my opinion – is the most naturally gifted player England has produced since Paul Gascoigne. 

Watching the development of McGregor gives me hope that we might yet see something similar with Mikey Johnson. Until his loan move to Vitoria de Guimaraes last September, where he has three goals and assists across 22 appearances, Johnson had played hide and seek with the Celtic first team for a few seasons, never quite establishing himself as a first-choice winger owing to a succession of injuries. 

Yet, there could be no doubt that he was a naturally gifted footballer and that he needed an entire season devoid of injury to show what he was capable of. This seems to have happened in Portugal and it’s been rewarded with two international appearances for the Republic of Ireland.

Johnson headed out to the Primeira Liga encouraged by these words from Ange Postecoglou: "There's definitely a talented footballer there, but sometimes you just need a different environment to help that happen."

I think Celtic supporters like me cling to a rheumy-eyed sentimentality when we express a desire to see 'one of our own' breaking into the first team. Of course there’s an added thrill when you see a teenager making his mark in the top team. I still recall the excitement of the adults around me when they watched Kenny Dalglish making his first few appearances for the Hoops. He was accompanied by Danny McGrain, David Hay, George Connelly and Lou Macari. 

Celtic Way:

A generation later though, opportunities for a Celtic youth player to establish himself in the first team are far harder to come by. And it’s here that our sentimentality is manifest.

The Celtic youth academy has become the gold standard for developing young Scottish talent. Currently, there are dozens of our existing or former young players playing good, professional football throughout Scotland and further afield.

For various reasons, and they’re not always about being deemed insufficiently talented, they either won’t make it at Celtic Park or – like McGregor and Johnson – will be encouraged to develop their games away from the obsessive and unforgiving glare of supporters like me. 

I was profoundly moved by an interview my colleague Anthony Haggerty conducted with Kerr McInroy last April. The midfielder is currently at Kilmarnock and was on loan at Ayr United when the article was first published.

After suffering a cruciate knee injury he'd had temporary spells at several other clubs and he was able to recognise that things were not going to work out for him at Parkhead.

He said: "I kind of think my time at Celtic is probably up. You get a wee window of opportunity when your age group is going to break into the first team and I have probably passed that. I will maybe be in a position where I will be moving on.

"Celtic have an option of another year in my contract but the club haven't spoken to me about that yet. I have been out on a couple of loan spells - they are good, it helps young players gain first-team experience.

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"It is just brilliant to go out and play games. It gives you a taste of what football is really like. I know what is best for me and that is to be out there playing somewhere and playing consistently every week for the next two or three years. I want to be a signed first-team player and not a loan player."

McInroy also spoke glowingly about his education – as a player and a person – at Parkhead. And it’s this, I feel, that we sometimes overlook when quantifying and assessing the work of the youth academy. 

The way in which Celtic seek to teach their young players can inform not just the rest of their football careers but the rest of their lives. Effectively, their youth academy is a national asset. It’s producing skilful, disciplined and committed young players – at all levels – for the benefit of Scottish football as a whole. They might not go on to become household names at these clubs, though several of them will, but they can still enjoy rewarding careers. 

Some in our persistently myopic mainstream football media bemoan the fact that Celtic’s greater resources somehow diminish their achievements. They portray the Hoops as a club which takes a lot by virtue of its massive supporter base and gives little back, swamping all opposition. That is fiction. 

Celtic are providing clubs that have lesser resources with a high-quality, free coaching and development course and doing so gladly.