COMPARING any modern-day Celtic player to Henrik Larsson is only likely to draw snorts of derision and wry comments of 'if only' from the club's supporters.
Larsson's stellar contribution during seven seasons with the Glasgow club, and the raft of trophies his goals helped deliver, mean it is unlikely any player will ever come close to achieving the same legendary status bestowed upon the Swede, and certainly not for the mere £650,000 it cost to entice him away from Feyenoord.
Not even Gary Hooper's most blinkered admirers would surely dare put the striker in the same bracket as Larsson at this point but, with his career approaching a crossroads, it may not harm the Englishman to look at the choices Larsson made before deciding whether to remain a Celtic player or seek a fresh challenge elsewhere.
Loading article content
Larsson's consistently high performances for Celtic, most notably in Martin O'Neill's first season when he won the European Golden Boot as Celtic clinched a domestic clean sweep, earned him admirers throughout the continent, with Sir Alex Ferguson keen to take the Swede to Old Trafford around that time. Larsson, though, decided to remain at Celtic Park, helping the team reach the 2003 UEFA Cup final in Seville and then win a league and cup double the year after. He left for Barcelona that summer, half of Glasgow in tears at his departure, the other half relieved to finally see the back of him.
The chance to compile that kind of legacy might be playing on Hooper's mind. Like Larsson, the Englishman's impressive scoring rate has drawn him to the attention of others, most recently Norwich City who had a £5m offer rejected last week. There may come a point, however, when the club receive a bid that is deemed acceptable, leaving Hooper with the decision of whether to stick with Celtic – where trophies, European football and an adoring fanbase are all but guaranteed – or take a chance by leaving.
Johan Mjallby, a former team-mate of Larsson's and now the Celtic assistant manager, hopes he will plump for the former. "Did Henrik prove you don't have to leave Celtic to be a superstar? In a way, yes," said Mjallby. "Obviously Henrik had a bonus in that he had already played for Sweden, and Gary hasn't played for England yet. But sometimes it might be a blessing to be at Celtic.
"We know where we are in Scottish football. It's maybe not in the best state, but Celtic is a massive club, with a big following. A lot of supporters are here for the games and it might be a blessing that you are the star. You play in every game and you get a lot of chances to build your confidence by scoring a lot of goals. If you go down south to the Premier League, it might take a few months before you get into the team, and you could lose your place. It's a gamble when you move to another club.
"At least we have a glamour [Champions League] tie against Juventus, which is important for us. If Gary is here, it's a great chance for him to show how good he is at the highest level. If he was to do like Henrik did and stay for a few more years that would be great for us."
Hooper is thought to be on the cusp of earning a call-up for the full England squad, something Mjallby felt would be enhanced by staying at Celtic rather than moving to Norwich. "We know in the past that he has been close to the England squad. The last few months haven't harmed his chances of getting picked either," he said. "Overall he's improved his game. He was always a great goalscorer but he can even play in the hole now for us when necessary. He's full of confidence and seems to be in a good place just now."
With the Juventus tie looming and Celtic still in a strong position to claim a domestic treble, Mjallby's hope is that Hooper will remain at least until the summer. The Swede suggested that the club may be more amenable to offers at that stage, particularly if Hooper were to sign an extended contract before then.
"Even if a player signs a four-year deal, you never know what will happen in six months," added Mjallby. "It's about surviving this transfer window and making sure we have our best players here, because it would be disappointing to lose a very good player going into the most important stage of the season."
Fresh from scoring twice against Hearts on Saturday, Hooper will get the chance to enhance his burgeoning reputation again this evening when Celtic take on Dundee United in a re-arranged league fixture. Lukasz Zaluska is expected to start in goal once more with Fraser Forster again struggling with a back injury. "Fraser has a stiff back but that's more of a precaution to leave him out because there are some big games coming up," said Mjallby. "It's really handy now that Fraser has a wee problem that we have such a good, astute keeper in Lukasz who can be there for us."