Football News

Once likened to Messi, Neil Lennon explains why it didn’t work out at Celtic for ex-wonderkid Karamoko Dembele

By Ben Green

Published: 14:27, 2 March 2023 | Updated: 10:15, 7 March 2023

Karamoko Dembele entered the footballing psyche at just 13 years of age when he made his debut for Celtic’s Under 20s in 2016 — but he was unable to kick on at Parkhead and cement a consistent starting berth in the first team.

Tipped to reach the pinnacle of the sport during his embryonic years in Glasgow, a precocious Dembele was making significant headways in the Celtic youth ranks and garnering international attention, leading to a pretty intense spotlight being placed on him.

Having starred in the internationally-renowned St. Kevins Boys Club Academy Cup for Celtic’s Under-13s in 2016 – where he tussled with the likes of Barcelona and Lyon, while also being named as the Player of the Tournament – Brendan Rodgers called him up to partake in light training with the first team.

The fleet-footed winger would have to wait until 2019 for his Celtic Park bow, coming on as a second-half substitute for Oliver Burke in a 2-1 win over Hearts. Former Celtic boss Neil Lennon handed the youngster his debut, and from there, fans expected him to kick on and become a consistent first-teamer.

However, the 20-year-old would only go on to make another nine appearances for the club in the proceeding three years, eventually leaving Glasgow rather inconspicuously in the summer.

Now playing for Brest in Ligue 1, Dembele has made 16 appearances in all competitions this season, and his former boss at Celtic, Lennon, believes he can still go on to fulfil his early promise.

When asked whether he feels Dembele can go on to achieve his potential, Lennon told Squawka (on behalf of Football Odds): “I hope so. He had a lot of attention for someone so young, which sometimes can be a good thing, and other times not.

“He was definitely a very talented player, but he found it difficult to make the transition from the youth team to the first team, in terms of the training. He found it physically difficult.

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“I’m glad to see he is getting some more game time [at Brest]. He is obviously maturing and doing the work behind the scenes.

“I think he can go on to have a decent career. I’m not sure what level he can go to, that will all depend on him. But he is certainly very talented.

“All he needs to do now is stay on it, in terms of his physical condition and let his body develop to the rigours of first-team football.”

On the pressure placed on him at such a young age, Lennon commented: “It was huge, and that was difficult for him.

“I think he always wanted to go and play abroad and he does have ambitions to play at a higher level. He certainly has the talent to go and do that.

“Of course, it’s not just about the talent. He has to work on his temperament and all the other professional things that go with it.”

Dembele, who was once described by David Feeney – a former coach of Dembele’s in Scotland – as comparable with Lionel Messi, has certainly showcased fleeting moments of stardust this term. He currently ranks fourth for shots (2.42) and chances created (1.81) per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season among Brest players, while he has also attempted 2.42 take-ons per 90 minutes.

Among all Ligue 1 players who have played at least 90 minutes (or the equivalent of one full match), Dembele has also won the most fouls per 90 (4.83), underlining that wing wizardry and comparisons to a certain Parisian sensation.

There will be a hope that the London-born winger can now start to push on and make a serious impression in the French top flight.