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Hooper staying grounded

GARY HOOPER is living proof that you do not need to be old to be experienced.

While most promising players work their way through a club’s youth system before finally breaking into the first team, Hooper took a different route to the top. At the age of 16 he was playing with his local club Grays Athletic in the Conference South, learning his trade alongside players twice his age where the tackles were whole-hearted and the learning curve steep. There would be no academy kick-abouts for Hooper to break himself in gently.

Still only 23-years-old, Celtic are the sixth club on what is an already impressive cv. Hooper has progressed with each move, having now played at every level in the English league system from the lower Conference to the Championship, where he outscored Andy Carroll, then of Newcastle United, last season.

There have been setbacks, too, along the way. He was released by Tottenham Hotspur, his boyhood heroes, at the age of 14 after spending seven years in their youth programme, and went through a brief period afterwards playing Sunday League football with his mates while he awaited his next opportunity. He did not have to wait long -- Mark Stimson, then manager of Grays, soon spotted his potential -- but he has not forgotten how far he has come, nor the route he has taken to get there.

For his goalscoring exploits in his first season with Celtic, Hooper has been installed as the favourite to be named the PFA Scotland player of the year next month, and he is in the running for the young players’ award as well. Success has not changed this down-to-earth Essex boy, however, revealing he plans on sharing his moment in the spotlight with old friends.

“My past keeps me grounded because I’ve played in every league on the way up,” he said yesterday. “It’s been a great experience coming from non-league football, battling it out with defenders trying to kick you. That’s what they do at that level so if you can get used to that you’ll be alright.

“I was at Spurs for seven years but left when I was 14. I had a couple of trials after that at Northampton and Luton and when nothing came of that I went and played Sunday League football for a while. I still have a few friends doing that even now. It was where I really started playing football and then Mark Stimson, the manager at Grays, took me into their reserves. Things just went from there. When I go back home I go and watch my mates play in the Sunday League and we have a laugh afterwards. I’ve got a table full of them coming up for the PFA dinner.”

Silverware, though, has largely eluded him along the way. In his first full season with Grays they won the Conference South title -- Hooper weighing in with a dozen goals -- and there was further success when Scunthorpe United clinched promotion to the Championship via the play-offs. He concedes such achievements would pale, though, should Celtic go on to win the title this season.

“When we won the league with Grays I was too young to drink so I just did my celebrating on the pitch,” he said. “All the senior boys just pulled me around before we had a do at the ground. I had all my family there and it was great. But winning the league with Celtic would be massive.”

An interesting sub-plot to Celtic’s assault on the Clydesdale Bank Premier League centres on the mini-duel between Hooper and Anthony Stokes. The pair have forged a prolific strike partnership in their maiden campaign together and the race is now on to see which of them will finish the season as top scorer. Hooper smiles as he speaks about their friendly rivalry but, like all forwards, underneath the surface there is undoubtedly a steely determination to ensure it is he who comes out on top.

“We haven’t got a bet on final goals but I will beat him,” he said. “There are only a few games to go and there’s just one goal in it. It’s a good little battle and we even battle in training as well when we’re shooting. It’s a good laugh, though, and I think it brings the best out of both of us.

“We have a good understanding and rapport. We’re the same age, we can both play, we have good brains and we can score goals. You can’t ask much more than that of a strike partner.”

Aberdeen have more cause than most to fear the duo who both claimed hat tricks when Celtic mauled them 9-0 earlier in the season. The teams meet again on Sunday in the Scottish Cup semi-final with Hooper expecting it to be more evenly-matched this time.

“The 9-0 game is still in everyone’s mind, but it’s going to be a completely different game because it’s at a neutral ground,” he said. “We also played them in the League Cup at Hampden and won. But this is a completely different game, a hard game.”

Neither Hooper nor Stokes, though, will be allowed to take a penalty should Celtic earn one. “We’re both off penalties because we’ve missed our last ones now. I think Sammi [Georgios Samaras] or Daryl Murphy are the next choice. It’s up to the gaffer,” he said.


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