Having made his first-team debut in the last game of the Premiership season against Hearts Dembele has lost the small amount of anonymity he had and is now well and truly in the limelight as Scottish football’s next great wonderkid- a title previously held by players Islam Feruz, Ryan Gauld and Liam Henderson to varying degrees of success.
Dembele now finds himself at something of a crossroads. In his 45 minutes of first-team action last season it was clear- despite his frame and size- that he was ready to play more regularly, even if his sole half of football came largely playing against fellow 16-year-old Hearts full-back Aaron Hickey. His talent was obvious in his sole cameo to date but with such strong competition ahead of him at Celtic Park, he may favour some sort of move away from Neil Lennon’s men in search of some more minutes.
The 16-year-old has been on the radar as a potential world star for three years now- having made his Celtic U20 debut aged just 13– and already attracted the interest of Barcelona and having made his full debut it would be no surprise to see similar rumours arise over the next 12 months. But what should he be doing for those 12 months?
A loan away could go either way: a roaring success or a damp squib. The winger clearly has the talent and didn’t look out of place against Hearts, one of the more physical sides in the division, but moving to someone like Morton (a club that regularly secures the temporary services of Celtic’s best youth prospects thanks to their links) or even to a Premiership club would present a lot of risks, risks that that the club might not want to take with a player who they see as having as bright a future as anyone and, ultimately, someone they can make a lot of money from.
Staying at Celtic will mean a real fight to get minutes but would probably represent the safest option for a 16-year-old who hasn’t played a lot of football to date. Learning from James Forrest and Scott Sinclair could be pivotal in his development, particularly if he’s afforded occasional minutes for Lennon’s side.
Whichever route Lennon takes with Dembele you hope he is protected in more ways than one. Feruz jumped at the chance to sign for Chelsea in 2011 but never kicked a ball for them before being released aged 23. Hopefully, Lennon can instil patience in his youngster and encourage him to turn down good money now with idea that if he stays at Celtic he can replicate the likes of Kieran Tierney, Virgil van Dijk or going even further back Henrik Larrson. Wherever he’s playing you hope that he’s afforded protection from referees as he’ll likely be a target for bigger, less able players (which given his stature and incredible ability is most players in Scotland).
You just hope he can follow teammate Tierney’s example and be on the shopping list of the great and good as opposed to Feruz who cashed in at the earliest opportunity and has been ditched by six clubs before his 24th birthday.