Karamoko Kader Dembele
Photo: Celtic Football Club

In March, English League One leaders Portsmouth journeyed north to face a mid-table Blackpool side trailing by 20 points. On a 17-game unbeaten streak destined for the title, Portsmouth seemed set for victory, especially after former Scotland striker Jordan Rhodes was sent off just before halftime.

Despite the odds, Neil Critchley's Blackpool secured a commendable 0-0 draw, largely thanks to the efforts of young midfielder Karamoko Kader Dembele, affectionately known as 'Kaddy.'

Once considered too small and fragile to compete at a high level, Dembele was pivotal in Blackpool's resistance. Critchley recounts, "When we went down to 10 men, we played 3-5-1, and Kaddy was one of the three midfield players. If you'd said to anyone — or to Kaddy himself — that we'd be up against top-of-the-league Portsmouth with ten men and he'd be there in central midfield, spending most of the game without the ball... he wouldn't have believed it. But he did that for us and did it unbelievably well — back in his penalty area, tackling and making clearances."

From Wonderkid to Forgotten Talent

Kaddy, better known as former Celtic wonderkid Karamoko Dembele, broke the internet by debuting for Celtic's Under-20s at 13. Quick, clever, and skilful, Dembele seemed destined for stardom. By 16, he had a Nike sponsorship, thousands of Instagram followers, and a full Celtic debut.

However, the hype train derailed. Despite praise from Brendan Rodgers, Neil Lennon, and Ange Postecoglou, Dembele saw little game time. Injuries, including an ankle fracture, didn't help. His low-key exit from Celtic in 2022 went almost unnoticed amid Postecoglou's title celebrations.

A New Beginning at Blackpool

Dembele joined Ligue 1 side Brest, making just 18 appearances before being loaned out last August. Enter Critchley. "I'd been aware of him from his younger days at Celtic and his youth days with both Scotland and England," says Critchley. "Our recruitment team and sporting director, David Downes, were also well aware. When we spoke to him, we were really impressed. He came across brilliantly well."

Until then, Dembele hadn't completed 90 minutes of professional football. His early weeks at Bloomfield Road were mainly bench appearances. But soon, the Seasiders' new No11 registered his first start, assist, and goal quickly.

"I think Blackpool were trying to figure out what to do with him," says Blackpool Gazette journalist Amos Wynn. "In his early games, you'd be forgiven for thinking his size could hinder him, but the way he adapted to the physicality of League One was impressive."

Establishing Himself as a Key Player

Firmly established in the starting XI, Dembele excelled after Christmas, driving Blackpool's bid for promotion to the Championship with nine goals and 14 assists. He swept the board at the club's end-of-season awards, winning three Player of the Year prizes and telling the audience, "I'll remember my time here for the rest of my life."

Although Blackpool narrowly missed the play-offs, Wynn believes Dembele's contribution was crucial. "Without him and the goals from fellow loanee Jordan Rhodes, the play-offs would have been well out of reach. There are good players in the Blackpool squad, but no one can do what Dembele did."

A season of first-team football in a gruelling league allowed Dembele to dispel many doubts. Not physically durable? He made nearly 50 appearances and didn't miss a single training session. Not versatile? The former winger played centre midfield in a 3-5-2. Not big or strong enough? Dembele has adapted his game, making his size irrelevant.

"He's got a unique ability to twist and turn and receive the ball under pressure," says Critchley. "We slightly adjusted his position to give him freedom because teams started putting men on him. He played off the front, through the middle, slightly wider, and as an attacking midfielder. He loves football and always wants to learn and improve. He was our standout performer, winning almost all of our awards."

Future Prospects

Dembele's career is back on track. He has been touted for a senior Scotland squad call-up. While this summer's Euros in Germany will come too soon, his prospects could change, considering the lack of pace and width in Steve Clarke's regular picks.

At the club level, Dembele faces big decisions. Linked with several English Championship clubs and even West Ham and Everton, his next move will be crucial. Critchley is proud of his role in Dembele's revival but knows he won't return to Bloomfield Road soon.

"I hope he finds the right club and builds on this breakthrough season. He can achieve international recognition. Good coaching is about providing the right opportunity at the right time. We take great pride in helping him, but it's all down to him. We'll always hold Kaddy fondly in our memories. That's for certain."