The walk from the coach to the dressing room is, for Premier League players, something akin to a catwalk. It’s a chance for the team to accessorise their club tracksuits with oversized headphones, personalised trainers and designer bags. At Arsenal, club captain Pierre-Emerick Auabemayang is occasionally spotted with a shimmering metallic Louis Vuitton rucksack.
Before Arsenal’s FA Cup tie with Sheffield United, left-back Kieran Tierney bucked the trend by arriving at Bramall Lane with his possessions in a Tesco shopping bag (estimated value: 10p). The footage went viral, his pragmatic choice deemed extraordinary in its ordinariness.
In this time of deserted stadiums, a sense of connection between players and supporters is precious. Fortunately, in Tierney, Arsenal have someone who effortlessly bridges that divide. There is something endearingly old-school about the Scotsman, who refuses to allow the trappings of life in the Premier League to change him. A plastic bag for his belongings says Sunday League, not superstar. It’s his relatability, as much as his talent, that has earned him instant popularity in north London. When it comes to forging that bond with the fans, it seems that every little helps.
Arsenal have got themselves a ready-made fan favourite, a cult hero in a can. His dynamic playing style and no-frills approach are the stuff supporters dream of. Were the Emirates Stadium packed out, Tierney’s name would surely already be raucously sung by the Arsenal support: he came from Glasgow, he shops at Tesco, Arsenal’s No 3.
Tierney’s cult status is nothing new. He was adored at Celtic, as you’d expect of any former ball boy who went on to captain the club on several occasions. He came from a family of obsessive Celtic fans — his dad and uncle ran supporters buses on behalf of the club — and consequently, it was inevitable that he became a standard-bearer for the supporters on the field.
He was destined to be a Celtic player. In 2010, Celtic lost the Scottish Cup semi-final to Ross County. After the game, Tierney’s father Michael was interviewed by television cameras. “That’s the worst Celtic team I’ve seen in my life,” he said bluntly, before indicating the 12-year-old Kieran by his side. “And this is the future in front of us.”
On another occasion, a young Tierney took part in a specially arranged training session with first-team star Shunsuke Nakamura. At the end, cameras caught Nakamura going over to the youngster, picking him out as the day’s best player, and handing him his boots. Tierney was anointed for stardom.
There is much to admire in Tierney beyond his fairytale backstory. Take a closer look at his career, and you discover it’s the story of overcoming adversity, of repeatedly bouncing back.
When Tierney was a boy, his teachers asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was unequivocal: “A footballer.” The staff, however, had their doubts. Tierney’s mother was a dinner lady at the school — one of three jobs she worked to help support him — and the teachers explained to her that young Kieran ought to set more realistic goals.
When Tierney reached his mid-teens, it seemed as if their cynicism might win out. At 15, the callow winger was struggling for regular game time in Celtic’s academy and was not featuring in the Scottish international set-up. He dropped down an age group at Celtic and contemplated following in his father’s footsteps by serving an apprenticeship as a roofer. While other players at Celtic were kept on, Tierney was kept waiting. In the end, an offer arrived — but Tierney got just 12 months. Others in his age group were offered three years.
It was enough. A switch to left-back, and some belated physical development, saw Tierney’s fortunes improve. The respite was only temporary: the day after Tierney’s first call-up to the Celtic bench, the high point of his nascent career, he broke his leg.
It established a pattern that was fated to repeat itself. Injuries have dogged Tierney throughout his career, as much a consequence of his fearlessness as any suspected fragility. Former coaches cite his love of a challenge. This, after all, is the man Scott Brown once said “would tackle his granny”. Somewhat like former Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, Tierney’s relish for the physical side has sometimes placed him in harm’s way. The injuries have a silver lining: in Tierney, they have forged that steely resilience, that determination to get back up after being knocked down.
No story sums that up better than Tierney’s participation in the 2017 Scottish Cup final. Twenty-seven minutes into the game, Aberdeen forward Jayden Stockley caught him with a swinging arm, leaving Tierney bleeding from the mouth with a fractured jaw and a tooth Tierney described as “facing the wrong way”. By chance, Tierney’s dentist happened to be sat close to the dugout, and hurried down to pitchside, fighting his way past security to assist in treatment.
Back in the changing room, the dentist offered Tierney a short-term fix at his practice a short drive away. If all went to plan, he might make it back for any post-match celebrations. Tierney accepted, undergoing a procedure under anaesthetic before heading back to Hampden Park.
“We’re driving back to the game, we were at traffic lights, and I remember hearing the commentary for Tom Rogic scoring the winning goal,” Tierney recalled. “We were going mental, beeping the horn. I just jumped out the car in my kit, had my boots on, I just ran. Aberdeen fans were all shouting stuff at me as they were coming out, thousands of them.” Social media footage documents Tierney jogging around the stadium concourse as he tried to find his way back into the ground.
Eventually, Tierney got down to pitchside and looked up to see the final few players in line to lift the trophy. He sprinted up the steps, just in time for Moussa Dembele to hand him the cup. With a fat, bloodied lip, he thumped the badge on his Celtic shirt and held the prize aloft. It is the stuff folklore is made of.
In his battle with injury problems, Tierney has had an unusual ally: retired mixed martial arts competitor Conor McGregor.
When Tierney was sidelined, he would derive inspiration from watching McGregor’s documentaries online. When the pair eventually made contact via social media, “The Notorious” McGregor offered tips as Tierney went through rehab, sharing details of the fitness programme he uses on the Wattbike — a smart-tech indoor exercise bike that has become increasingly commonplace at top British clubs.
McGregor and Tierney met at a Belfast UFC event in 2017 and bonded immediately over their shared love of Celtic. McGregor has even been pictured wearing Tierney’s replica shirt during workouts at the SBG Ireland gym. It’s a connection that endures: in January this year, Tierney flew to Las Vegas to watch McGregor defeat Donald Cerrone at UFC 246.
Tierney has long admired McGregor’s showmanship and skill. Above all else, he’s admired his will to overcome. “I love the way he talks about positivity,” says Tierney. “It’s about mindset and how you react to people doubting you, and how to come back from defeats. Any athlete can relate to him.”
Arsenal’s first serious approach for Tierney came in the summer of 2016. The young defender had enjoyed a breakthrough season at Celtic, playing over 30 games, but the new manager Brendan Rodgers convinced him his immediate future lay in Glasgow.
Even last summer, it was not a straightforward choice to leave his beloved Celtic. Tierney has since admitted the decision gave him “sleepless nights”. Not only was he leaving his boyhood club, he was also leaving the Motherwell home he had bought for his parents after signing his first major contract.
Moving down south has been a significant step for Tierney: living alone, adapting to a new city. He credits the likes of Granit Xhaka and Hector Bellerin with helping him to settle, showing him the ropes at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground.
Kieran Tierney Hector Bellerin Arsenal Tierney has developed a close bond with fellow full-back Bellerin – despite differences in fashion (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images) His dress sense certainly raised eyebrows. In sharp contrast to Bellerin’s sartorial elegance, the 23-year-old is rarely pictured in anything other than a black tracksuit. “I get slagged rotten for it,” Tierney said. “I just wear an Adidas tracksuit every single day. I’m so plain, I dress plain, all black every day.” Bellerin has diplomatically described Tierney’s style as “keeping it very Scottish”. Others at Colney have dubbed him “Roadman”.
Tierney arrived at Arsenal with a hip injury and impressed immediately with his commitment to the rehab programme. There are hard yards to be covered in the journey back to full fitness. Tierney made his comeback in an under-23s game with Wolves, undergoing an extensive post-match stretching routine in the cramped corridors of AFC Telford’s New Bucks Head stadium.
He was injured when Mikel Arteta arrived, too. After a run in the first team through November, Tierney dislocated his shoulder three times in 10 minutes against West Ham in December. It was a bitter blow, but Tierney’s dedication still struck a chord with the new manager. Arteta was impressed that Tierney would digitally attend team meetings throughout his absence. The pair’s first sustained contact came during the winter training camp in Dubai. Tierney was only going through light rehab work but was struck immediately by Arteta’s clarity and insight.
“He knows what’s going to happen in a game, how it’s going to happen, and what you should do,” says Tierney. “He knows where you’re going to get pressed from and where your options should be. You should know where the left-mid’s going to be, the centre-mid, so you can play in sync — one brain.”