comment There is a hugely persuasive case that Celtic should sell Hooper now, writes Hugh MacDonald
CELTIC have a decision to make about Gary Hooper. They can sell him now or they can sell him later. The idea that the striker, 25 next month, will spend his career at Celtic is so preposterous that it belongs in football's Brigadoon. Increasingly, the evidence suggests the fond farewell should be made soon for Celtic's financial interests.
Hooper added another splendid moment to an increasingly impressive cv by scoring a marvellous goal at Dens Park on Wednesday. His first touch was sublime, his chip over Rab Douglas precise.
His team mates strode into the media room afterwards to praise his contribution to what is already an extraordinary season for Celtic. Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, described the Englishman's goal as "ridiculous" and Charlie Mulgrew pointed out that Hooper's versatility was an overlooked facet of his game.
The former Scunthorpe United man played just off the front in Dundee, showcasing both his movement and his ability to link play. "Hoops can play that role. We've seen him do it a few times. He'll always get goals no matter where he is on the pitch," said Mulgrew, who was withdrawn at half time because of a rib injury but who should be available to play against Hibernian tomorrow.
"We've seen him do that [play in the hole] in training. He's as good at that as he is in the box. He comes off and sees the strikers' movement [ahead of him]. This is the best he's played for Celtic. He's playing really well – a really good player who's coming into his prime."
This accurate assessment, of course, makes Hooper a target for other clubs.
"We want to keep the squad together," added Mulgrew. "I'm sure the manager does as well. Hopefully there's no bids for him. Every player wants to play in the Champions League – especially in the last 16. As I've said we want to keep the squad together and the manager won't want to lose any players."
This is a predictable, understandable sentiment but it may not survive a collision with reality.
There is a hugely persuasive case that Celtic should sell Hooper now with the striker having 18 months to run on his contract. His precise value has yet to be tested in the market, but he is at the peak of his worth.
First, he is playing with enough flair and goals to attract suitors and Nikica Jelavic, the former Rangers striker now at Everton, has shown that a top SPL striker can prosper in England.
Second, potential buyers are dealing in the market of desperation. The four English clubs most regularly linked with Hooper – Queens Park Rangers, Sunderland, Southampton and Liverpool – simply need a striker.
For the first three clubs, the acquisition of Hooper could mean the difference between relegation and staying up, two scenarios separated by tens of millions of pounds. The last is the most unlikely eventuality. Liverpool have only one recognised striker in Luis Suarez but Daniel Sturridge is almost certainly on his way to Anfield from Chelsea.
It is therefore highly likely that there will be a bid for Hooper in the transfer window as he has been noticed to such an extent that Roy Hodgson is likely to call him into the next England squad.
Third, the price for Hooper is likely to be favourable for Celtic who paid £2.4m for him in 2010. Crucially, this is the moment when Celtic have some control over the fee. Not only is the January window a seller's market with the safe selling to the desperate, but Hooper has not yet grabbed Celtic's offer of an extended contract on more favourable terms. Therefore Celtic would be looking to sell him in the summer. The Celtic boardroom will not be looking to follow the "Arsenal Armageddon" whereby a top player is allowed to run his contract down and leaves the club on his terms and at a reduced price.
If Hooper is kept beyond this window, there is the likelihood he and his advisers could come to the conclusion in the summer that he would sit out his final year and talk to other clubs next January. With no need under this circumstance for a transfer fee, Hooper would attract huge wages.
However, the strongest reason for selling Hooper now is that it adheres to the Celtic business plan. The club has been open in declaring that the strategy is to find or develop players, then sell them on at a profit.
A crucial aspect of this declared intention is pick the right moment. For example, have Emilio Izaguirre and Biram Kayal improved their sell-on value over the past 18 months? Both have been badly afflicted by injuries and may rise to prominence again, but there is a message for Celtic that potential transfer fees can fall as well as rise.
Celtic will face criticism if they sell their best striker ahead of a Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus. There is the possibility that Hooper could be the difference between winning or losing that tie.
The certainty, however, is that there has never been a better time to cash in on an astute investment.