Before the transfer window opened in January, Neil Lennon did an admirable job reassuring the fans about the security of his top players at the club. With the Juventus clash upcoming, and a healthy standing in all three domestic competitions, who would ever want to leave? In light of this, Mulgrew, Ledley, Watt, Izaguirre and others signed new contracts keeping them at the club for years to come. Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper’s refusal to sign new deals on the other hand, brought an elephant into the room that has grown immensely in stature since the beginning of the month.
Since Henrik Larsson’s monarchy ended in 2004, Celtic have not held the services of a more prolific striker. In the past two years, Gary Hooper has turned into an absolute poacher, and has, only in the recent glow of the Champions League glory, begun to get proper recognition. However, it’s bad timing for Neil Lennon and his staff, and while it brings attention and potentially large sums of money to the club should they sell him, it also heightens the expectations and ambition of the player.
It seems then, and understandably so, that a sense of panic is emerging from within the club, when just days ago, Lennon laughed off Norwich’s initial bid for Hooper. The dread of losing his top players has surely worried Lennon to no end since the window opened, but he has done ample job in cloaking it. If his act fooled any fans into thinking their top goalscorer was surely going nowhere, it was blown open when he admitted that Gary Hooper has his price.
Johan Mjallby’s plea for Hooper to follow in the footsteps of Larsson confirmed their desperation to convince him to stay. While he could well be the next cult hero who cements his status as legend at the club, in today’s money stuffed environment, its simply not possible. The lure of England, higher wages, and top quality football and increased odds of being picked for the national side outweighs the odd season beyond the Champions league group stages and domination of the SPL.
The fact that Celtic have already begun to look into replacements for Hooper not only helps give a sense of the likelihood of his retention, but also suggest Lennon is not entirely confident in his current strikeforce’s ability to give Juventus a good run, and secure a possible domestic double or even treble. It’s not exactly as if numbers are running thin upfront either. Stokes’ return from injury puts him alongside Miku, Watt, Lassad and Samaras as the strikers currently in the squad. Burnley’s Charlie Austin is one of the names circling around the club as a possible replacement for Gary Hooper.
With his continual refusal to sign a new contract, and Celtic’s dismissal of Norwich’s most recent offer, its tough to judge the outcome of Hooper’s future. The fact that he hasn’t signed a new deal is an indicator that the idea of a departure is at least swirling in his mind. In Lennon’s ideal world, Hooper signs a new deal and sees it out. However, the option of him signing a new deal, earning increased wages for the next six months and then moving along in the summer is an offer that you’d think would appeal to the player. However, moving to England also represents an opportunity that is difficult to hold off for six months, even if he knows he will likely be making the move in the summer anyways.
To Hooper’s credit, he has behaved in an admirable and professional manner. He refused to sign a new contract, and if he does want to leave, he hasn’t stated it. Taking into account his recent performances where he bagged braces against both Hearts and Dundee United, the only thing that will be taking Hooper away from Celtic Park is an offer too good to turn down. Its unlikely that the player himself will cause any disturbances. There appears the sense that he will happily stay on until summer if he is not sold, but will be equally delighted to move on to the next stage of his career, should a high bid materialize.
Hooper has been an absolute colossus for the club since his signing in 2010. Even while the price Celtic paid for him is quite high in terms of ther spending capacity, he remains one of Lennon’s best bargains. If he moves on, all fans can do is thank him for his massive contributions and recognize his desire to test himself in a top league.
Having said that, its difficult to envision looking at Celtic’s team sheet versus Juventus and seeing Charlie Austin or Miku’s name at the spearhead of the attack, endeavouring to fill a gigantic Gary Hooper sized hole. Chances are, we’ll be left wondering what could have been.