WORDS: MAX BELL
He may be making waves in Europe with Celtic this season but, to those in the know, Gary Hooper has long been a hot prospect. In the first of a two-part feature examining the emergence of the English striking sensation, we start with a look at a memorable two-year spell with unfashionable Scunthorpe…
You’ll have to forgive me for the headline but I remember being gutted when no-one could take up my expectant headline – “Super Hooper Shatters Hatters” - after the first of our two Wembley dates in 2009.
For, while Gary Hooper indeed ran Luton Town ragged throughout the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final that year, unfortunately he was on the losing side.
But enough about missed headline opportunities, let’s talk more about the greatest English natural finisher. There, I said it. Scunthorpe fans have known this for a long time – it’s just a relief that it’s finally acceptable in footballing circles to admit it!
Hooper gave Scunthorpe United two years, in which time we witnessed arguably the most naturally talented player to grace our books in modern times. But if you aren’t wholly familiar with him, he is the lad scoring freely for Celtic at the moment – not only in the Scottish Premier League but in the Champions League to boot.
He began his football life in the Tottenham academy but, following rejection in North London as a teenager, found himself grubbing round his native Essex with part-time Grays Athletic. Unsurprisingly flourishing in the non-league, he soon earned a step-up to Southend, but Steve Tilson’s Shrimpers were unable to harness his talents and they let this gem slip right through and left three League One clubs to fight for his signature in the summer of 2008.
For two unforgettable years, 52 league goals and a Championship dream – Scunthorpe shelled out a grand total of £175,000 for Hooper. Beautiful.
His 30 goals in that first season for League One Scunny ensured his absolutely electric partnership with Paul Hayes flourished beyond all dreams. Their combinations and understanding became the stuff of legend for Iron fans – Hooper’s movement and anticipation are simply world-class, and we couldn’t believe our eyes.
Propelling us out of the third tier, under the masterful tutelage of the saintly Nigel Adkins (himself an ex Scunthorpe United physio), ‘Hoops’, in a significantly poorer side, proceeded to out-score Newcastle’s own prodigy, Andy Carroll, in the Championship the following year.
His 19 league goals in the second tier belied the fact that Hooper flourished despite being half-fit for much of the season, with scant service and at a level we hadn’t survived at since 1963. His goals changed all that, helping The Iron to a 20th spot finish and safety. But his hotshot form predicated flirtatious glances from afar: most notably Celtic and, in the end, the Hoops sealed Hoops’ signature for a steal of £2.4 million.
Image: Carl Gac (all rights reserved)
He shines to this day as a textbook example for the indefatigability of lower-league players and the benefits of serving a proper lower-league apprenticeship. This point is particularly salient in 21st century football, the Thatcherite poster-child that throws money down players’ throats at a rate of knots, straight from fans’ pockets.
Arguably the most in-form English striker out there at the moment, it seems to me unforgivable snobbery that England haven’t even come close to calling his tune. What other striker, perhaps bar Wayne Rooney, consistently shows himself to be at home in the Champions League?
His intuition and anticipation is better than anyone I’ve ever had the privilege of watching live and it is an abominable fact that it has taken so long for ‘serious’ pundits to begin purring over him. Frankly, I am just relieved that, all this time, he hasn’t been eligible to play for anyone other than England. But, after all, he’s not a fashionable disciple, who, so far, has been forced sadly to shine in the dark. Bring him into the light Roy!
With Celtic now in the Champions League knockout stages and his goals having been instrumental in the Bhoys’ significant achievement, his time is nigh. That said, he is unlikely to move in January – as the East End of Glasgow would likely riot if he did. My own mighty Scunthorpe will thus be forced to wait a little longer yet for our juicy 20% sell-on fee clause to ripen, but it’s still an absolute pleasure to watch him succeed so vigorously meanwhile.
Mark my words, having had an imperious 12 months, 2013 will, without doubt, be the year of Gary Hooper. I just hope Lancaster Gate is watching!