Celtic, Life Under Lennon and Larne

By James Rowe – @JamesRoweNL – Chief Football Writer

You signed in January 2020 for Larne FC in Northern Ireland. How are you enjoying your time at the club so far and how would you describe a club such as Larne FC?

Credit: Larne Football Club

I am really enjoying my time here at Larne FC. I came over to Northern Ireland after I had some really bad injuries. I wanted to come over to get away from things and get some game time. My original intention was to come to Northern Ireland, get game time and then leave again but I have enjoyed it so much that I wanted to stay and I moved to Larne FC from Glentoran FC and Larne FC is a club that is massively on the up.It is a full time club and not all clubs here in Northern Ireland are.

They have a great owner in Kenny Bruce and he has the best interests of the club at heart. Sometimes you have owners that are only in it for profit or for non footballing reasons and he brought this club being from Larne himself.Larne is also a small village and he wants everybody at the club to push in the right direction and he has done that so far. They club got promoted last season so this season is their first season in the top division. I signed in January and the club also play good football. I like to get the ball down and play football the right way and it is great to have good people in and around the club and it was a massive reason why I wanted to sign for Larne FC.

Credit: Larne Football Club

You came through the youth setup and debuted for Celtic FC. How do you look back on your time at the club and did year learn anything in particular that stood you in good stead for your career as a professional footballer?

When you talk about big clubs it is first and foremost always hard to go and stake a claim and play in the first team. I signed for Celtic FC when i was eight and I started out in the under ten’s team. Even now there are not many players who go come through the youth setup and debut for the first team.

No matter what happens it is something that I will always hold close to me and be thankful that I got the opportunity to play for Celtic. I loved my time at the club and being a Celtic fan being brought up in a Celtic household so for me even being in the youth team was a big deal and I managed to make to debut at Celtic Park against Ross County and play competitive games for the club was massive for me and my family as well because they gave up a lot to make sure that I could get there and finally achieve the goal that I wanted to.

I suffered some bad injuries at the club but looking back on my time at the club I was involved in some big games.I was on the bench for the famous win against FC Barcelona. So there are a few iconic situations that stand out for me.I also believe that my injury situation was the only thing that stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. I left on a new manager coming in and I was not where I wanted to be.

Ronny Delia came to the club and I was not anywhere near the first team because he did not know me as a person and I was still young and that is the reason why I left. I loved my time at Celtic and people who know football know that it is all about luck and you need to be lucky in certain situations and when you get your chance you have to take it and for instance I made my debut and during training the following day I broke my ankle so it was hard at times but such experiences have made me the man I am today being mentally stronger and dealing with different situations. I am a true believer that everything happens for a reason and I am really thankful for my time at Celtic FC and it was a dream come true to play for the club and something that will stay with me forever and something that I am really proud of.

You played two seasons for Blackpool FC. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any highlights or special memories?

After I left Celtic, I had a few offers to stay in Scotland from having been at a big club in Celtic but I always wanted to go and play in England. So I went down to sign for Blackpool FC and I loved it.

I had a good pre season and I was flying and then two days before the season started I suffered a ACL injury, my cartilage so I was out for eight to 12 weeks. It did not heal properly so I ended up being out until Christmas time amd then I went on to play around 25 games and I enjoyed my time at the club even though I felt at times that English football did not really suit me. I met some really good people during my time in England and I had a good manager in Neil McDonald who was assistant to Sam Allardyce at West Ham United and he had a good understanding of football and he new what he was talking about but he changed his ways after a few bad results and he brought in very physical players over six feet tall and started playing long ball so I did not play the last three months of that season.

He was honest enough to explain his reasons for leaving me out and I respected his reasons. Every footballer values honesty from their manager. He then got sacked due to Blackpool FC getting relegated to League Two. I then received a few offers to go back to Scotland and then Gary Bowyer came in as the new manager and me and him did not get on at all. We had a few coming togethers and disagreements and it was best for me to move on and he would not allow me to leave and then on deadline day I managed to secure a loan move to Dunfermline Athletic in Scotland.

Credit: Dunfermline Football Club

My time at Blackpool FC ended really in a really silly way but I met a lot of good people. A lot of people in Blackpool FC have a bad name as the Oyston’s were there at the time but they were really good to me and they helped me a lot as I went down to Blackpool as a young 21 year old boy and I have got a lot of respect for them.

You have accrued experience playing in Scotland, England and also youth international level for Scotland. Could you say who are among the best players you have played alongside so far in your career?

I played with some very good players during my time at Celtic. We had some very special players such as Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper James Forrest, Joe Ledley but the real stand out player for me was Scott Brown in everything that he carries and his whole persona with hard work. He has the whole package and I think he is very underrated. He is also underrated in Scotland even though everybody loves him.He is just so driven.

I also played youth international football for Scotland at under 18 and under 21 level and I went on to captain the under 21 team and we played in European Championships.I remember at Celtic in the youth team a played called Islam Feruz who ended up leaving to go to Chelsea and he was a special player. He probably left Celtic too early but Chelsea were offering him something that he could not turn down but he was a very special player.

I can imagine as a midfielder that you have come up against some difficult opponents through the years.could you say which opponents stood out for you in terms of talent and ability?

Yes, Going back to my time at Celtic I played competitive games and every year we would also play pre season and mid seasons games against top teams such as Borussia Mönchengladbach and Galatasaray.

I can always remember playing against Borussia Mönchengladbach at Celtic Park and at the time Granit Xhaka was their captain and I can remember coming off the pitch thinking wow if that is the standard I need to get to. He was great with both feet, he could move and run as well as being fit and strong. He also had an unbelievable range of passing too.

I also played against Athletic Bilbao in the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao and I was only 16 years old and Celtic FC pulled me out of school to travel with them and play the game. I played 80 minutes and I have the shirt of Ander Iturraspe.He taught me a lot in that game and his movement on the ball was just fantastic. I played opposite him in midfield and I did not know where he was. The ball would go behind me and he had such quick feet.

I also played a friendly against Tottenham Hotspur and they had Mousa Dembélé playing for them and he is probably one of the best players I have ever played against. He is just so strong and he carried the ball so well. I remember thinking he could go on to play for one of the best teams in the world.

You mentioned Neil McDonald at Blackpool. Could you say who are the coaches and managers who have meant a lot to you so far in your career and who have played a key role in your development as a professional footballer?

I think Neil Lennon has to be up there.He took my under his wing from the age of 17 years old in the youth team of Celtic. I still stay in contact with him even now. Celtic pulled me out of school early and I signed full time professional terms and Neil Lennon was the reserve manager at the time.The first team manager was a man named Tony Mowbray and he came and watched a couple of under 18 matches and I had played well so Neil Lennon called me up to the reserves within three months.

Tony Mowbray then got sacked and Neil Lennon then became the interim first team manager and after doing well Celtic gave him the job permanently so there was me training with the first only four months after leaving school. It was just unbelievable given my Celtic background and for me it was very special. He gave me the chance at a young age and he also gave me my debut.

I will be honest I had agreed to sign a new contract at Celtic and then Neil left to go to Bolton Wanderers and that is the only reason I left. If he had of remained at Celtic I would still be there.When I left to go to Blackpool Neil Lennon tried to get me to go to Bolton Wanderers with him. Bolton Wanderers were playing in the Championship at the time and I was guaranteed more football in League Two with Blackpool FC at the time and then after I finished my loan spell at Dunfermline.

Credit: Dunfermline Football Club

I was going to sign for Hibernian FC as Neil was the manager there and after failing a few medicals I spoke to him and he is the reason I came over to Nothern Ireland because he is from there. He told me go to Nothern Ireland I have got a big team for you in Glentoran and you will get some games under your belt. He is someone who I have a tremendous amount of respect for.

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