WORDS: JOHN CLARKE
If there’s the tiniest space to wriggle into, he’ll find it, and if there’s a line of sight to the goal anywhere, he’ll home in on it like a seagull on a bag of chips. In Part 2 of our assessment of Gary Hooper we find out why Celtic fans are sure that he is the real deal and it shouldn’t be long before England realises it
Gary Hooper has been a key part of Celtic’s renaissance under Neil Lennon. The Hoops have gone from total shambles to the knockout stages of the Champions League in double-quick time, and Hooperman’s goals have been a key ingredient.
Success often comes at a price, though, and that price could potentially be the loss of the former Scunthorpe striker to a big-money bid from that there big league down south. Interested parties have been sniffing around for a while, and now that he’s banging them in in Europe, speculation has intensified.
There will always be those who turn their noses up at players plying their trade in the SPL, and not entirely without foundation, since the gulf between Scottish football and the Premier League is obvious. Hooper, though, is showing signs that he’s the real deal. In fact, he has many of the attributes currently lacking in English centre-forwards.
Hooper has that priceless quality of being a totally instinctive finisher. When he picked up on an error in the Spartak Moscow defence in the recent Champions League clash, he didn’t have to think for a second. No hesitation, no over-egging the pudding, just wallop: one touch – straight in the bottom corner. He’s also the archetypal penalty box player. He’s scored hatfuls for Celtic but fans would struggle to recall more than the odd example of him putting them in from further than ten yards. No thirty-yard screamers for Hooper, for the simple reason that he doesn’t have to. His positioning and awareness are such that he seldom finds himself in the position to have to attempt the spectacular.
Hoops is the master of playing on the shoulder and has an uncanny knack of making defenders lose track of him. How does he do it? Hypnosis? Pointing in the opposite direction and shouting, “look at that really interesting thing over there?” Nobody knows for sure but week in, week out, defenders can be seen craning their necks trying to figure out where he’s gone and, indeed, what day it is. Before they know it, he has a couple of yards on them and a shot at goal. When that happens, there’s only going to be one outcome. Some say he’s quick, but it’s probably more accurate to say that his ability to get a head start on his marker makes him look quick.
Image: Ronnie Macdonald (via Flickr)
The reason he’s so good in the box isn’t just down to his positioning though. He has truly remarkable upper body strength, which he uses to devastating effect, wriggling and squirming in the box and evading the clutches of opponents who are inevitably trying to swap shirts long before the final whistle. If there’s the tiniest space to wriggle into, he’ll find it, and if there’s a line of sight to the goal anywhere, he’ll home in on it like a seagull on a bag of chips.
In short, a natural goalscorer, but there’s still more to Hooper’s game. He opens up the game for his team-mates with his tireless off-the-ball running and unselfishness. Yes, you heard that right – an unselfish striker. An oxymoron you might think, but if there were OPTA stats for how many goals he’s set up for the likes of Anthony Stokes and Kris Commons or for how many times his movement has opened up the equivalent of a bus lane through the middle of SPL defences, they’d be off the scale. Finally, Hooper has a first touch that most would kill for. He can bring down a speculative fifty-yard punt with contemptuous ease and without breaking stride.
No surprise, then, that a growing number of Premiership clubs are showing interest in Super Hooper. Celtic’s Champions League adventure has put a few coins in the kitty and left Neil Lennon in the cosy position of not having to sell anybody. It may also stifle any potential desire among players to move on to new pastures, at least for the time being. That said, bound by the financial shackles of Scottish football, Celtic have adopted a prudent business model of buying low, developing talent then occasionally selling a big-name to balance the books and fuel their own transfer war chest. The kind of money even a mid-table Premier League club could potentially offer is top dollar to the Hoops. Nobody will be nicking any of Neil Lennon’s players on the cheap but if a megabucks offer comes in, Hooper may find that chief executive Peter Lawell has packed his bags for him and left them on the front doorstep of Celtic Park. The green-and-white masses will be hoping that day doesn’t come any time soon.