Kieran Tierney's departure on a stretcher encapsulated his career ...

20 Jun 2024
Kieran Tierney

ONCE UPON A TIME, big tournaments were a trip into the unknown, players coming up against opponents they might only have heard of if they were avid watchers of Eurosport or readers of World Soccer.

But such is the multinational nature of club football, especially in the Premier League, that clubmates are facing each other in game after game at Euro 2024. Last night was no exception as two former Arsenal team-mates, whose careers have gone in opposite directions, faced each other in Cologne.

In the blue of Scotland was Kieran Tierney, still on Arsenal books but unwanted at the club and at a crossroads in his career, even before he was carried off on a stretcher on the hour mark against Switzerland, whose captain Granit Xhaka has gone from strength to strength since leaving the Gunners last summer.

Xhaka has strikingly revived his career by moving to Bayer Leverkusen and leading them as captain to a league and cup double in their unbeaten domestic season, winning a runners-up medal in the Europa League, too.

Tierney turned 27 two weeks ago, but no-one really knows where his next move will be. Once hailed as the Golden Boy of Scottish football, captain of Celtic at 20 years old and subject of a Scottish record transfer fee when he moved south to Arsenal two years later.

He immediately won over the hearts of Gunners fans, who have a long history of great Scots, from 1971's Double-winning captain Frank McLintock to George Graham and Charlie Nicholas. Tierney looked set to be Arsenal's left-back for years to come, even a possible captain, but it has gone horribly awry in the past three years.

His career has been disrupted by a series of injuries since his early years at Celtic, and his is still plagued by regular fitness problems. Last night it was a hamstring pull that did for him as he tried to close down the dangerous Dan Ndoye, and the pain on Tierney's face was obvious as he was carried to the medical room. 

It is fair to say he has had more than his fair share of injury problems, which were one of the reasons he initially lost his place at Arsenal, when Mikel Arteta signed Oleksandr Zinchenko. He has gone farther down the pecking order behind Takehiro Tomiyasu and now Jurrien Timber, who will start the season as first-choice left-back. Tierney went to Real Sociedad on loan last season, but even then injuries restricted his appearances and it is understood the club are willing to let him go if they get an offer in the region of €12m, less than half the fee they paid Celtic.

The Glasgow giants would like to bring home a player who first joined them as seven-year-old, but the asking price and his current salary level puts him out of their reach.

There are certainly Premier League clubs that would be interested in a fully-fit Tierney, so this tournament was a timely opportunity for him to remind the world what he can do. But now it looks like his involvement is over, and any move will have to be put on ice, just as his damaged hamstring was in the Cologne stadium's treatment room.

Maybe a move – any move - would revive his career, the way it did for Xhaka. To say he has thrived since leaving Arsenal would be a huge understatement. Perhaps his most famous moment in an Arsenal shirt was when he removed it angrily as he was being substituted in a game against Crystal Palace in 2019, swearing at Arsenal supporters who had been barracking him and cheered his departure.

The then manager Unai Emery made him apologise to supporters, and it was thought he would never play for Arsenal again. But the former Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder fought his way back, especially after Arteta replaced Emery, and enjoyed a return to favour among staff and supporters, and ended with a second FA Cup winners' medal, playing alongside Tierney in the final.

He gave Arteta credit: “He turned me around and gave me a second chance, showing me he trusted me, and I tried to give him everything back.” 

Under Xabi Alonso at Leverkusen he has regained confidence and improved, and against Scotland Xhaka showed the same calmness and creativity in the middle of the park that helped the German side win the Bundesliga. Twice in the first half he broke up Scottish attacks with his intelligent positioning, and then launched counter-attacks with his ability to envisage – and to execute – his trademark crossfield passes that open up the play. Ndoye was often the recipient, giving Tierney a real challenge that the Scot coped with well until that fateful moment after an hour.

While Tierney will now undergo rehabilitation and reflect on where he might end up next season, Xhaka can look forward to helping his country progress in this tournament before leading Leverkusen into the Champions League next season, and a defence of their title.

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