Jock Stein once said the Celtic FC shirt does not shrink to fit inferior players. "Even at youth level that jersey can be heavy," says Chris McCart, who took over as head of the Glasgow club's youth development from the late Tommy Burns in 2008.
"Our main purpose as an academy is to create UEFA Champions League players for the first team," says the former Motherwell FC defender. "We make sure these boys are exposed to the best coaching, best sports science, best education and best medical attention – to give them every chance of getting through."
In the 1960s, the area was a conveyor belt of talent: Stein's European champions of '67 were all born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park. McCart admits that will be hard to replicate, yet the past has a big influence on the academy's plans. "Celtic have a rich history of entertaining supporters and playing attractive football, and we've always got that at the back of our philosophy," he says. "We want to play in a certain style and win in a certain style, and we don't want to win at all costs."
The development centre is split into three components. There is the junior academy, which accepts boys from as young as five, the intermediate academy, and the professional academy, which takes players through to age 20. After that, graduates join the first team or seek employment elsewhere.
In McCart's first year, he and the Scottish champions' chief executive Peter Lawwell visited several top European clubs, including AFC Ajax, SL Benfica and AC Milan, to see what the Bhoys could achieve. "We had to make sure we were getting it right at the bottom level," he says, "because if we don't get it right at the foundation level, then we weren't going to get it right at the top."
What they noticed were the benefits of relationships with local schools: "We came back and set up with St Ninian's High School in Kirkintilloch. It has been absolutely fantastic for us." The partnership allows academy boys from the west of Scotland to join the school – close to the club's training ground at Lennoxtown – to combine football development with full-time education. One pupil, Paul George, has already made the first team.
McCart says the academy's proudest moment in recent years was watching Prestwick-born James Forrest, a former Celtic Park ballboy, make his UEFA Champions League debut this season on matchday one. "James is a role model for the academy. They can now see, with a young player coming through and playing at Champions League level, that there are opportunities. So if they've got the talent, the opportunity comes with it."
With his €11.6m move to FC Spartak Moskva in 2010, Aiden McGeady became Scottish football's most expensive export, and his fee was used to rebuild the Celtic squad. The aim is that the success of a homegrown first team will keep Celtic strong financially. On Wednesday, Spartak's No8, recently back from injury, looks likely to return to the club where he was so influential. "We are delighted for Aiden, but we hope a Celtic player scores the winning goal," says McCart. "It would top it off if it was an academy player as well."
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the latest edition of Champions Matchday which is available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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