CELTIC Under-19s have confirmed their continued participation in the prestigious Next Gen Series, and the news has been greeted with delight by the Club’s Youth Academy.
The young Hoops took part in the inaugural tournament earlier this season, alongside some of the top clubs on the continent. It saw them face youngsters from Barcelona, Marseille and Manchester City in an innovative, Champions League-style format.
The ground-breaking competition captured the imagination of not only the players but of the Hoops support as well, with thousands turning up at Paradise to cheer on the next batch of emerging talent at the club.
Coaching staff within Celtic´s youth set-up believe that taking part in the NextGen Series has proved beneficial to the young players’ development, and had helped accelerate the promotion of several of them into the top-team, including Marcus Fraser, Dylan McGeouch and Filip Twardzik.
With that in mind, Head of Youth, Chris McCart was naturally elated that Celtic would be involved again next season.
“We are very excited about it,” he told the official Celtic website. “I think it’s been a great experience for us, playing against Barcelona Marseille and Manchester City.
“We had a taste of it last year and we all really enjoyed it. It was great for the players, and what was fantastic was the first-team management could come and watch the players in action, and we´ve seen more young players made their debut this year for the first-team.
“There were a lot of benefits last year in terms of the players’ development. Not only are you playing against top-class European sides but you have the opportunity to play at Celtic Park in front of the fans.
“I’m sure the NextGen games have really helped them with the standard of their games, and playing under those conditions in stadiums and in front of a support."
One of the main advantages for the young Celts in facing teams from the continent was experiencing a different style of football than they are usually accustomed to domestically.
And McCart used the example of Marcus Fraser, who made his first-team bow against Rennes in the UEFA Europa League, as an example of someone who had benefited from the NextGen tournament.
“You saw the progress from each game when they got used to the tempo and style of European football," he explained. “They will slow it down with good passing routines and will raise the tempo as the game has got on, and they have adapted very well to playing against European opposition.
“That experience has helped two or three of them going on to make their first-team debut, in particular Marcus Fraser when he made his first-team debut in the Europa League. He settled in on the back of having played in the NextGen games, so having that sort of European experience at a young age is vital for the club.
“At first-team level, we must be seen to be doing very well in Europe and the more experience the young players get at that stage, the better equipped they will be.”
Although the young Hoops never reached the latter stages at their first attempt, their record of three victories from six games in a challenging group was a terrific effort.
That was certainly the view of the supporters who turned out in their droves to watch the young Hoops in action, and were impressed by what they witnessed.
“I think the fans can relate to it,” added McCart. “They are looking to see the next generation of young players coming through before they reach the first-team.
“The feedback we’ve had has been very good. To get three wins in such a group was very credible but, ultimately, we were disappointed not to get through as it would have been great to continue that experience into the quarter-finals.
"But I think the team equipped themselves very well and were unlucky not to get through."
Celtic were one of the main instigators in helping the tournament get off the ground and, following the huge success of the first one, McCart expects it to prosper, with more of Europe’s elite teams now expressing an interest.
“At the very beginning when it was first suggested to us, we were delighted to be part of it, but we didn’t realise what the scale and quality of the tournament would be," he said.
“Once it got it up and running, a lot of top clubs in Europe realised they had missed the boat, and a lot of them had communicated with ourselves, and other clubs, to see if they could get in.
“So there is a real prestige surrounding it, and it’s going to grow and develop. There is talk of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich coming in next year. So it’s exciting times."