The English Football Leagues are becoming rather familiar territory for Celtic’s scouting team and fans alike. Recent signings have been a mixed bag, ranging from the excellent Kris Commons (Derby, 2011) to the disastrous Mo Camara (Burnley, 2005) or the curiously disappointing Danny Fox (Coventry, 2009). The latter was brought North by Tony Mowbray, a manager who had spent two years in the Championship managing West Bromwich Albion and he oversaw the signing of a number of players from the so called ‘backwaters’ of England. His spell in charge and judgement in the transfer market was so dreadful that fans are no longer enthused by the prospect of players from South of the Border. But has the signing of striker Gary Hooper restored faith?
Hooper set Celtic back something in the region of £1.6m (stretching to £2.4m after add-ons) and is the most expensive of Lennon’s 13 new signings that have featured in the first eleven this season. Netting 13 goals in 17 league starts, Hooper is already justifying the price-tag and sits joint top of the SPL goal-charts (with team-mate Anthony Stokes and Inverness Caley Thistle’s Adam Rooney).
Penalty Box Poacher
There’s something about the former Gray’s Athletic forward that gives him the look of a quintessentially “British style” poacher. Short (5′ 9″) stocky but nimble, he may also evoke memories of Scott McDonald at his cutting best. As if to fulfil the cliché, of the 13 SPL goals scored this season, none have been hit from outside the box:
What is central to Hooper being so lethal within the penalty area is his precise first touch, low and stubborn centre of gravity, and composure under pressure. One man more familiar with Hooper than most is his old Gray’s manager Gary Stimson, who first came across the natural goal-scoring instincts.
“… his touch was always first class. I could see him doing little things he used to do when I had him at Gray’s and he’d score goals galore. I used to see him score so many goals similar to the ones he scored on Sunday [against Rangers, 3-0]. Gary still looks the same but is bigger and stronger. He’s still confident and composed”
It’s these qualities that even for someone just turned 23, makes grabbing and creating goals (in one of the most daunting and pressured atmospheres in world football) look effortless. In fact Hooper has now scored 3 times against the Ibrox side, and this potent threat (and the gangly pace of Georgios Samaras) provoked Walter Smith to field 5 defenders in the last Old Firm derby, capitulating possession (and an admission of fear) before a ball had even been kicked.
“Sensational” partnership with Stokes
Not only going by physique, there are a number of similarities between Hooper and Anthony Stokes – a partnership described by Lennon in the recent win over Dundee Utd as “sensational”. Small, great technique and an almost greedy knack for grabbing goals. And while Stokes too has enjoyed a great season so far and overall has scored more in all competitions, the type of goal-threat each player brings creates a dangerous dynamic.
As can be seen by the graphic, a whopping 7 of Stokes’ 13 SPL goals have come from penalty kicks. (For the record, Celtic have been awarded 10 penalties this season – 1 other missed by Stokes, 1 scored by Patrick McCourt and 1 from Daryl Murphy) The other notable aspect of the graphic is Stokes’ goals have a higher tendency to be struck from a further out position – a greater threat from range. In part dispelling the myth that Stokes and Hooper are too similar to play together, perhaps the most significant fact is that the two this season have contributed to 32 goals and 10 assists in all competitions. That’s a direct contribution to over 50% of the 80 goals scored by Celtic.
Apart from that 4 SPL goals scored by Hooper linking up directly with Stokes, his most profitable source of income has come from the wide areas:
Crosses, cut-backs and square passes is the bread and butter that Hooper thrives on, but surprisingly only 1 of these goals was a header – knocking down a Stokes cross (most furthest bottom-right pass) across a despairing Jamie Langfield.
His success is focused on movement – in finding space enough away from defenders to take down the ball and get an effort in. It’s instinctive, and again classic “poacher” qualities. Also seen in the graphic is short but effective dribbles in and around the box earning that elusive area of space to strike from. This devastating control and first touch sets Hooper away from anyone in Scotland at the moment. See these 2 outrageous pieces of skill in getting past Steven Thicot (in Bergkamp-esque fashion) and the brutal outpacing of David Weir…
Significance of contribution
It’s not at all a case of laying into teams that have already been beaten. In the 9 SPL matches that Hooper has scored, 7 have been the opener; along with 1 hat-trick, 2 braces and significantly 2 last-minute winners. Clearly someone with the “big-game” attitude to change matches.
Interchanging roles with Anthony Stokes has also confounded defences this season. Generally it’s the Irishman that likes to roam and provide something of a link-up with the centre of midfield, but it’s a fluid partnership obsessed with space and the self-confidence to seek room deeper if required. The 3-1 victory over Dundee Utd at Tannadice is a fine example of Hooper taking up this deeper role, or even better, the delicious chip pass through to Scott Brown in the 3-0 win over Aberdeen that resulted in a 2nd minute red-card for Dons defender Andrew Considine – another game-breaking piece of skill that traditional stats cannot quantify.
What’s also difficult for defenders to cope with is Hooper’s urgency to get into the box after linking up in deeper areas, and often (as David Weir found) with his acceleration, he can’t be caught. An example is the tap-in from Emilio Izaguirre’s cross against Rangers (3-0), where a charge of 45 yards was required, breaking a neck to get on the end of the final ball.
But an area that openly needs to be improved is his defensive contribution. As Assistant Manager Johan Mjallby explains “[Larsson’s] work rate was second to none for the team. I think that ‘s something Gary Hooper and Stokes as well as Sami must look at. If they want to be Celtic greats they need to, not only score goals and create goals, but they need to work harder without the ball as well.”
Who better an example than the great Henrik Larsson for aspiration? A guy that could work-hard, create, inspire, win games single-handedly but most significantly score goals…
Goals in the grand scheme
To conclude on a more light-hearted note, a recent article by Sky Sports really put into context just how lethal Hooper has been in front of goal:
With 13 goals in 17, the Celtic striker tops the UK goal ratio chart ahead of even English Premiership heavyweights Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez.
Across Europe only the irrepressible Leo Messi and the in-form duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Antonio Di Natale have a better ratio than Hooper. Of course the standard of league in both examples skews the statistics, but Neil Lennon’s opinion is that Hooper won’t have a problem at higher levels, such as the biggest SPL games or even Europe in the coming seasons: “I looked at his record and saw he’d scored 20 goals in 30 games for a team who have a history of struggling in the Championship. I knew he would have the ability to adapt to Scotland and the capacity to score at any level of the game.”
And it’s that note that sets the tone not only for Hooper’s progression as a player but for Celtic’s long term future. Looking at other ‘big fish in small ponds’ such as Porto and Ajax, the most successful way of competing with the richest clubs in world football is to become a selling club. Buying cheap, developing, getting a handful of good seasons, and selling high – Gary Hooper could be the epitomy of this ethic. If Lennon is correct and Hooper can score as frequently at any level, then the sky is truly the limit for such a complete goal-scorer.