Over the past few weeks I have received many questions regarding Celtic's number 88, Gary Hooper. Ever since his release from Tottenham's youth team, Hooper has steadily rebuilt his career. Slowly he rose through the ranks, impressing at Grays Athletic, Scunthorpe and then earning a move to Celtic. His 58 goals in 83 games have unsurprisingly earned him many plaudits in England. Among those who have been Sir Alex Ferguson, although he told Neil Lennon that he is well catered for in the forward department. With Celtic's Champions League triumphs and the successes of Steven Fletcher and Nikica Jelavić, SPL strikers are less and less perceived as wild gambles.
The stats are impressive but much of the transfer hype is based around a striker who is able to do a lot more than just score goals. He is excellent at holding the ball up, linking with other players and positioning himself during counter-attacks. At Celtic he has made significant improvements in his decision-making and his work-rate. Crucially, Hooper is aware of his limitations, rarely shooting outside of the box or using his left foot. January has been good to Hooper, with six goals in four matches. I would attribute this good form at Celtic to a tactical change in recent games. Celtic have now taken to playing 4-3-3, with Samaras, Hooper and one other upfront. With the two other strikers playing wider, Hooper has sat slightly deeper and then arrived late in the box with devastating consequences.
The club most closely linked to Hooper has been Norwich City. Many Celtic fans, myself included, cannot fathom why he would move to East Anglia. Our disbelief comes for two reasons. Firstly, Celtic have a chance for a domestic double (which was a treble prior to Sunday) and critically will be playing in the last 16 of the Champions League. Even those who are frequently cynical about the quality of Scottish football can understand the allure of such matches. Secondly, why Norwich? With all due respect, there are few clubs that can match the quality and passion of Celtic fans, and why would you leave that to go to a club facing a possible relegation battle. Norwich can supposedly give Hooper the foothold to the England squad, but reports suggest that Hooper would have been in Hodgson's latest squad if he had not been injured. I can understand this desire to play in England, but Norwich would be a step down on too many levels. A better explanation, I would venture, is the widely reported fact that Hooper's contract with his agent expires in February. This in turn means that said agent is pushing his client for any move in order to receive one last payday.
The other club widely linked with Hooper is Tottenham. Hooper's attraction to Spurs would be more obvious. It would represent an opportunity for the man who was born and bred in Essex to go back and prove himself to his former employers. Moreover, Spurs have a realistic chance of Champions League football this season. Unfortunately, I fear this would be the wrong move for him due to André Villas-Boas' tactical preferences. Spurs frequently operate with a 4-5-1 system and the chance to link up with Bale, Lennon et al must be tempting, but would Hooper really be able to dislodge Defoe? At best, his playing time would be intermittent, which would be problematic for a striker who needs a run of games to get into his 'rhythm'. A more likely option is that Hooper would be playing in a Dempsey role in front of a striker. However, Hooper's successes in the deeper role at Celtic came because there was space further forward for him to run into. Spurs have switched to two upfront at times this season but Hooper and Defoe would strike me as a poor partnership. Defoe is a relatively selfish player and only partners well with a tall striker who can give him knock downs, or at least that is the conventional wisdom. I feel that Hooper could play with Defoe, but the latter would have to change his game to partner Hooper. Adebayor and Hooper could work as a partnership, but it would be strange for Spurs to leave out their in-form striker to accommodate anyone. To my mind, if Spurs wanted a striker who has played well at Celtic Park they should be looking at Spartak Moscow's Emmanuel Emenike. Powerful, quick and with an eye for a finish, he would suit any Premiership club. This season, no opponent player has impressed me as much as Emenike, and we have had Messi at Celtic Park!
If Hooper neither signs a new contract nor leaves Celtic this month, he will be in the same position in June, but English clubs will have greater resources due to their new TV deal. Surely it would be best to wait another six months? Some would put these musings down to a desperate fan who wants one of his team's best players to stay for a huge six months, but I genuinely do not see Hooper's incentive to leave at this moment and to go to either of those clubs. The next few days will see if my hopes are confirmed or not.
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