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James Virgili: Celtic, Robbie Keane and surreal Lennoxtown experience

James Virgili nearly had to pinch himself as he took in his surroundings.

The 17-year-old Newcastle Jets youth team winger was standing in the dining hall of one of Europe's most storied football clubs, making small talk with a man who had found the back of the net no less than 126 times in England's top flight.

The veteran of 349 English Premier League appearances keeping Virgili company was Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane.

The pair were waiting in line to collect their lunch at Celtic's Lennoxtown Training Centre.

Keane, was in the middle of a 16-game loan spell at the Scottish giants which coincided with an unexpected two-week trial for Virgili in March 2010.

"I remember after one of the training sessions we went into the dining hall to have lunch and I was standing in line behind Robbie Keane while we waited to collect our food," Virgili toldtribalfootball.comexclusively.

"He turned around and just started making conversation with me, asking me how my trial was going and things like that.

"At the time, it was a bit of a surreal experience and it made me appreciate how big an opportunity I had to have the trial with Celtic."

A year prior to arriving in Glasgow, Virgili had become the youngest player in A-League history after making his debut for the Newcastle Jets at 16 years and 180 days in a 3-0 loss to Wellington Phoenix.

However, the Broadmeadow junior made just one other senior appearance for the Jets that season, and spent the majority of the following campaign in Newcastle's youth team.

It is for this reason the opportunity to go on trial at the 46-time Scottish Champions came as such a surprise to the young Novocastrian.

"The whole thing kind of came out of the blue," Virgili explained.

"I was playing with the Jets' youth team at the time, so wasn't really getting a lot of exposure or anything like that.

"At the end of the season, I got selected for the Young Socceroos and we went on a tour of Cyprus in the lead-up to the FIFA U-20 World Cup that year.

"We played a game against the England Under 20s while we were in Cyprus and I played pretty well – easily my best game of the tour.

"I had no idea there were even scouts watching, but not long after that Celtic got in touch with my agent and a few weeks later I was on the plane to Scotland."

Virgili's initial impression of Celtic was one of awe and amazement at the sheer size and class of the club's Lennoxtown Training Centre.

"They had six pitches, including two artificial ones that were all in immaculate condition," Virgili said.

"The other facilities they had in the clubhouse included a massive gym, a dining hall, physio rooms and basically everything you need as a professional. It was really impressive."

Virgili started his trial with Celtic's Reserves and Under 19s squad, before taking part in joint sessions with the first team.

"The actual drills we were doing at training weren't actually all that different to what we did back home in Newcastle," Virgili recalled.

"It was the just the overall standard of play and the quality of the sessions that was a big step up from what I was used to."

However, midway through Virgili's two-week trial, Tony Mowbray was sacked as Celtic manager, leading to reserve team boss Neil Lennon being named as Mowbray's replacement.

Virgili believes the managerial turmoil the club was going through at the time did not help his chances of picking up a contract with The Bhoys.

"Originally I was training with the reserves under Neil Lennon and having occasional sessions with the first team, but when Mowbray got fired, Lennon had to take care of the first team," Virgili explained.

"There was a lot going on while the club reshuffled their coaching staff.

"In hindsight, that probably made it difficult for me to really stand out. It felt like there was a different coach watching me train each day and their focus was elsewhere, which was understandable."

Although no contract offer ever came from Virgili's trial with Celtic, he was happy with how he acquitted himself during his two weeks in Glasgow.

"Before I went over there I was worried I would be below the standard, just because I was so young and still learning about being a professional," Virgili said.

"Even though it wasn't a successful trial in terms of getting a contract, I still took a lot out of it and really enjoyed myself while I was there.

"I was really happy with way I performed during the trial. I felt like I definitely held my own and I wasn't too far off the pace at all.

"It was a great learning experience for me as well, seeing what it takes to get to that level and it certainly helped me develop as a player."

Motivated by his experience with Celtic, 23-year-old Virgili has forged a successful A-League career, making 57 appearances in Australia's top flight to date.

Gerard Laws
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Gerard Laws

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