Inside track on Celtic and their moves to sign Sheffield United's George Baldock
It was two years ago, as Sheffield United were still busy celebrating their return to the Premier League, when Celtic first began to take notice of George Baldock’s potential.
An important member of what was then one of the most talked about teams in the country, the defender’s reputation within the game had already soared thanks to his membership of a rearguard so attack-minded it defied reason and logic.
But as they started the process of compiling the dossier which landed on new manager Ange Postecoglou’s desk last week, it was Baldock’s combination of tenacity and technique that captured the imagination of the then Scottish Premiership champions’ recruitment gurus. After browsing through the contents and requesting further information within hours of taking charge, Baldock has clearly piqued Postecoglou’s interest too. As The Star revealed on Sunday, the former Australia and Yokohama Marinos chief’s employers are now contemplating submitting an official bid for the 28-year-old having added his name to their list of potential signings.
Baldock, who reported back for pre-season training at the Steelphalt Academy today, was the subject of an approach of sorts by Celtic at the beginning of last season. Although that came to nothing - particularly when it became apparent that he was beyond their financial reach - senior figures at Parkhead now sense an opportunity to capture a player whose personality, experience and ancestry make him the perfect Postecoglou signing.
After inheriting a squad desperately short on confidence after surrendering its SPL title to arch-rivals Rangers, Neil Lennon’s successor is expected to embark upon a major overhaul of Celtic’s playing staff this summer.
Right-back is a priority position for Postecoglou, with Jeremie Frimpong joining Bayer Leverkusen and Israeli Hatem Abd Elhamed returning to his homeland. Although Anthony Ralston remains on the books, Celtic lack depth on the right hand side of their backline. Following United’s relegation from the Premier League, Postecoglou has calculated Baldock could be tempted by the prospect of challenging for trophies, competing in Europe and retaining his status as a top-flight footballer - albeit north of the border, where the rewards are not as high as those on offer in England.
Crucially - and perhaps worryingly for United assuming they are determined to retain his services - Baldock is also British. After investigating the reasons behind Celtic’s recent demise, following a decade of total domination, Postecoglou has told friends he suspects the previous regime’s preference for overseas talent has been responsible for diluting team spirit and cohesion behind the scenes. The majority of in-coming transfers in Glasgow’s east end are likely to now be playing their trades with English or Scottish clubs. Postecoglou, a specialist in turning around under-performing sides, believes that will help Celtic rediscover their identity; something his research suggests has slowly been eroded over the course of the past few seasons, culminating in last term’s shift in the balance of Old Firm power.
Slavisa Jokanovic, who arrives at United on Thursday morning, has let it be known he is broadly satisfied with the options set to be at his disposal after agreeing to become Bramall Lane’s first overseas manager. Having also confirmed he is minded to preserve the take on the 3-5-2 system which helped his predecessor Chris Wilder deliver two promotions, the Serb is likely to view Baldock as an important part of his plan to help United return to the PL at the first attempt. Losing him could prove an early test of Jokanovic’s ability to maintain a harmonious relationship with his directors - something which ultimately proved beyond Wilder, whose patience was tested by what he perceived as a lack of investment and interference.
However, it will not have escaped the United board’s notice - or been overlooked by Celtic - that Jayden Bogle, signed by Wilder to compete and presumably eventually replace Baldock in the starting eleven, is eight years his colleague’s junior. Reports online had linked Bogle with Norwich City and although those were quickly disputed by sources at Carrow Road, he is clearly someone of huge potential after scoring twice in his first 16 appearances since leaving Derby County.
Celtic think Bogle’s presence and progress could eventually lure United to the negotiating table, persuading them to consider cashing-in on Baldock knowing a ready-made and younger replacement is already in the building. A support base which has grown tired of seeing big names move on whenever United suffer a set-back, often for a fraction of their true worth, is unlikely to react kindly to any suggestion that Baldock might be sacrificed, however. Nor has there been any suggestion from the player himself that he is unsettled at United following their recent demotion. It was probably no surprise, given the importance they are known to place on the use of social media, that Baldock’s was one of the faces United published on their Instagram account to mark the team’s return to work.
With three years remaining on his contract, United are not under any direct pressure to sell Baldock. It also means, though, that if they choose to encourage Celtic’s interest that they could demand a significant fee - placating Jokanovic, if he was upset by the decision, with the promise of extra money to spend as he sees fit.
Ultimately, four things will decide how the next phase of Baldock’s career will unfold and whether or not he finds himself on a plane to Scotland: How much United want to keep him, his own thoughts on the matter, the Bramall Lane balance sheet and the size of any fee Celtic are prepared to offer if Postecoglou tells them to follow up on their interest.