Football: Potential of Tebily lights up Parkhead

If Celtic's new Frenchman continues to show his pre-season form, the unheralded defender will have been a shrewd purchase.
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The Independent Online
OLIVER TEBILY spent enough time watching his father practise as a lawyer to know about the scales of justice, but until three days ago he believed that the balance may have been tipped against him.

Yet 90 minutes at Parkhead on Tuesday evening spent putting several reputations in the shade has allowed Celtic's new signing to argue his own case for recognition. Tebily not only kept Alan Shearer under lock and key in the friendly against Newcastle, and outshone three rather more famous exports from France - Magpies trio Alain Goma, Didier Doma and Franck Dumas - but also scored in the 2-0 victory.

Tebily is one of the least recognisable of the foreign legion who have taken their trade across the Channel, however the central defender's rapid ascent is beginning to make the pounds 1.3m he cost from Sheffield United three weeks ago look like a shrewd judgement. True, the 23-year-old was guilty of scoring an own goal against Leeds United, but the rest of his performance that day and the display against Ruud Gullit's side have seen the Celtic support produce a positive verdict.

Now Tebily faces trial by television on Sunday. Celtic's Scottish Premier League opening fixture against Aberdeen at Pittodrie will examine the evidence on a player who must fill the sizeable void left by the absence of Marc Rieper and Alan Stubbs, both recovering after career-threatening problems.

"I don't think about what has happened to me in the last six months," Tebily said. "I know some people might think I don't have enough experience, but I have always worked hard and tried to learn. Celtic will teach me to become a much better footballer and I am excited about being here."

Tebily managed to acquire four under-21 caps for France despite only playing for the Second Division sides Niort and Chateauroux, whom he left to join Sheffield United last March for pounds 300,000.

Yet he knew his own worth. Rather than stay way down the queue, Tebily accepted overtures from the Ivory Coast, where he was born, and now has four caps.

"My French caps were not official games and I want to play international football," he explained. "The Ivory Coast have some players at clubs in Germany, as well as Bakayoko who has just moved from Everton to Marseille. It would also make my dad happy."

Tebily's late father, Arnaud, died five years ago, but by then he had seen his children established in France and in a comfortable background far removed from other immigrant families, such as the Zidanes, Karembeus or Anelkas. "Dad came to France to get his qualifications to become a lawyer," the Celtic player says.

He grew up in a middle-class environment of Poitiers, near Bordeaux, and was nurtured by Niort, who, although a Second Division team, had their own youth academy. Steve Bruce thought so highly of the player he recruited last season that he tried to lure him from United when he took over at Huddersfield. Celtic, however, held the greater appeal.

"John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish were great players," Tebily reflects, "and it excites me to come under their guidance. I don't think many players would refuse to sign for Celtic when these two ask you.

"I had only 14 games for Sheffield United, but I felt I adapted to the game there quite quickly and I am sure Scotland will be similar to England. I am comfortable playing either as a man-marker, which Steve Bruce used me as, or a zonal system which my coach at Chateauroux, Joel Bats, used."

Tebily's raw strength and power have already been enough to make the demanding Parkhead supporters warm to the boy from the Ivory Coast, just as those attributes earned Paul Elliot hero status here eight years ago. However, some observers also feel that the same assets will inevitably lead Tebily to match the massive collection of bookings which Elliot gained under the fussier refereeing north of the border.

"Oliver is very mature," points out Celtic's assistant head coach, Eric Black, who played at one time for Metz. "Most French players are. Players like Anelka or those who have moved to Italy are quite young yet they take it in their stride. They are not just tactically aware, but generally well educated. The system that Gerard Houllier instituted when he was at the French FA is now bearing fruit and hopefully Oliver will prove that for us too. He is quick and channels his aggression, but he is desperate to be a top player and it's the capacity to learn that amazes me."

Tebily is not even phased by the news that Stubbs, in particular, is hammering on the door desperate to play, after a recovering from an operation for cancer. "Being a regular player in a team like Celtic is hard," he says, "but I came here to give it my best shot. It's not up to me how often I play - John Barnes will decide."

If Tebily shows no leniency on Sunday, he can expect to feature in Celtic's plans for a long time to come.