Yet considering the plaudits the then Newcastle striker Andy Carroll got for his scoring exploits in the season before lasts English Championship, we damn well should have. While young Carroll had hit the net an impressive 17 times in 39 games, playing in a team virtually unchanged from the previous years relegation from the Premiership and which I might add included such talents as Barton, Coloccini and Gutiérrez to name but a few, the one year older Hooper had hit the net 19 times in 35 games. So 2 more goals from 2 less games in the same league as a player who 6 months later went for a staggering , and frankly nonsensical, £35million in a British record transfer, for a British player, from Newcastle to Liverpool. It’s a funny old world isn’t it?! Even funnier when you realise that Hooper’s superior goal feats had been achieved with the only recently promoted, almost season long relegation battlers Scunthorpe Utd. Indeed it was Hooper’s goals which ultimately kept Scunthorpe up against the odds and this season without him they have sank like a stone back down to League 1.
Gary had scored 50 goals in 95 games in all competitions for Scunthorpe over the course of 2 seasons. Considering how often the SPL is pilloried for it’s quality, or lack of, and compared to the 2nd and 3rd tiers of English football, these stats would indicate that Hooper had what it took. Yet for many there was more than an air of suspicion that Celtic had gone down the old predictable route of spending millions (around £2.4 million according to most reports) on another championship caliber player who would prove capable but no more and would be found particularly wanting on the European and Old Firm big game stages in particular. As a result, with Hooper, like so many of our pre-season signings there was only hope as opposed to expectation as to how good a player he would turn out be.
From the first game I saw him, the now 23 year old Englishman seemed determined to prove a point. Square shouldered, short and powerful looking Hooper gave the impression of both being fearless, determined and possibly a bit naive early doors. He showed the usual pre-season exuberance, running himself into the ground in friendlies and even scored against Lyon in the come from behind 2-2 draw at the Emirates tournament.
Soon after that he also scored his first competitive goal against Braga in the second leg of the Champions League qualifier which had come far too early for a completely rebuilt, young Celtic side and was more or less over after the away leg where we had been swept aside 3-0. Incidentally that same Braga team, who many in the press dismissed as no more than average, went on to reach the Europa League final. But that’s another story.
Despite such a positive start alarm bells started ringing when our new front-man picked up an injury in another early season game, a friendly against Blackburn in early August. Is it just me or does a young player getting injured not generally indicate he won’t make it? The likes of Messi, Ronaldo etc never seem to be on the treatment table but I’ve lost count of the amount of young ‘next big things’ who get a lengthy injury early and seem to disappear into obscurity not long after. Anyway, Gary was out for the best part of 2 months but didn’t waste much time when he did get back to fitness, scoring his first domestic and league goal in a come from behind 3-1 home win against Hamilton Accies. Two weeks later, he was at it again and also gave his first serious indication that he was indeed ‘a player’ when he nipped in at the back post to notch the lead and then an 89th minute winner in the infamous ‘Dougie-gate’ , 2-1 win over Dundee Utd at Tannadice. Of course it was Dusan Pernis’s disputed challenge on our new number 88 which led to the mass fall-out with the SFA, sacking of Dougie McDonald and Hugh Dallas and ultimately the referee’s strike. So well done Gary.
The following week we rolled up for the first Old Firm encounter against Rangers. Both teams had gone on a record equaling 8 consecutive game winning streak to begin the season and it all seemed set up for a classic showdown on Sunday October 24th. At the end of a somewhat disappointing first half, Hooper peeled off his markers at the back post and finished beautifully with a strike into the top right hand side of the net from a corner, right on the stroke of half time. Every phone in the ground went mental with talk of where we were going to meet after the game to celebrate the first big win of Lenny’s new Celtic revolution. It was the perfect time to score….right? Well it would have been had we not pissed it away within 20 mins of the second half with some comical defending which led to us somehow being 3-1 down. Alas…..it was not to be our day.
Despite the defeat, we quickly rebounded and the Hooperman got his first hat-trick for the Hoops in the 9-0 drubbing of Mark McGhee’s sorry Aberdeen, the worst defeat in the Don’s long and once proud history. We were also beginning to see signs of a blossoming partnership between Gary and the recently acquired Anthony Stokes.
A week later, Gary scored one of his most important goals in a Celtic jersey when he struck an injury time winner away against St.Mirren to take all 3 points in a desperately needed 1-0 win. Who could forget Gary’s run and embrace of that big fat guy who had ran out of the Celtic end while shouting ‘C’mon’??? Well I couldn’t and re-ran it several times over on the old Sky plus box. I’m easily amused.
The Christmas and New Year period was quiet for our number 88. Struggling through injury he missed the New Year’s Old Firm game as an injury ravaged Celtic side defeated the Orcs 2-0 but returned on the 15th of January and picked up where he had left off scoring a Thierry Henry-esque opener just before half time in an eventual 3-0 away win against Hibs. This strike was qucily followed by another up at Pittodrie as Celtic scored 3 of what would prove to be a 21 goal season long haul against Craigy Brown and ‘Big’ Archie Knox’s famous dandy Dons.
Then came Gary’s tour-de-force so to speak as in the space of 45 mins, two clinical finshes amongst some outstanding front play led to a 2-0 half time lead en route to a 3-0 full time destruction of Rangers on February 20th. His first, as he took a Kris Commons pass on from the touchline to sublimely put it past Davie Weir, skin ol’ man river in the process and then dispatch through the legs of McGregor was brilliant. His second though was a thing a of beauty. Izaguirre run up the left side and played it inside to Samaras. The Greek god advanced through the midfield and played it back out wide to the advancing Izaguirre who darted down the left wing. All the while Hooper had moved through the gears, running from behind Samaras, from well in his own half, right through a crowd of 4 Rangers defenders and got on the end of an inch perfect Izzy cross low at the back post with a sliding right boot to score his second and secure the points as a startled Rangers back 4 looked to the linesman in dismay. Perfect.
Gary would keep his scoring exploits up until the end of season. He scored one and set-up the other 3 as Celtic roasted Kilmarnock 4-0 at Rugby Park, and he added a brace in the 3-0 humbling of Hearts at Tynecastle before hitting the opener against Motherwell on the final game of the season. In total he scored 20 in 26 league goals, just one shy of a joint share of the SPL’s top scorer mantle. He scored 22 goals in 36 games in all competitions.
Even though he never scored in the Scottish cup final, and surprisingly for that matter in the competition as a whole, few if any were more deserving of a winner’s medal for his season’s efforts. Hooper has proved to be a clinical signing and a master-stoke by Lenny and his scouting team. Considering his goal scoring prowess over the last 3 seasons it’s fair to say we got him at a steal. I fully expect a hopefully injury free Gary Hooper to increase on last season’s goals tally in the coming term and he will start as most bookies favourite for the end of season top scorer possiton. I also look forward to him doing some damage in Europe as well, along with a more experienced and settled Celtic side. Hopefully his goals will fire us towards a desperately needed league championship next year and as long as they keep coming it seems inevitable, if indeed they aren’t already, that many suitors from down south will try to tempt him away. As long as we keep this bhoy under contract though the very worst we’ll do is bring in a king’s ransom. And as if we needed another reason not to support them, Stuart Pearce that oracle of all things football related and Capello’s whipping boy, has decided to drop him from England under-21’s squad for this summer’s forthcoming European championship. Shrewd move ‘Psycho’.
Where as Fortune was a huge disappointment, Hooper has been a revelation. A goalscorer who looks strong, determined and seems to be enjoying his trade. When it comes to Gary Hooper ‘I just can’t get enough’ it seems is a mutual sentiment.