It is the growing ease with which the two are dovetailing together, so that their partnership already seems rich with potential.
Loading article content
A natural compatibility exists between the pair, with Hooper preferring to play high up the pitch, lurking around the margins of the opposition back line, and Stokes more eager to drop back into midfield to gather the ball and impose his will on the build-up play. They are still coming to terms with each other’s tendencies, but the indications are of a relationship that is complementary to their individual traits.
They both scored hat tricks against Aberdeen, with Stokes creating two of Hooper’s goals, and there is an easy rhythm to their play, something instinctive. When a second penalty was awarded to Celtic in the first half, and the Englishman was seeking his third, they briefly argued about who would take the spot-kick, before Stokes held on to his responsibility and struck his own second of the game.
But the skirmish was a consequence of their fierce desire to score, as though accumulating goals is the only measure of their worth to the team. Afterwards, Stokes compared their nascent partnership to the Chris Sutton/Henrik Larsson pairing that was once so mercilessly effective for Celtic. Neil Lennon would be more circumspect, but signing the two forwards already looks like an astute decision by the Celtic manager.
“They’re both playing very well at the moment, making great runs in behind defenders and getting themselves into positions to score, which is half the battle,” says George McCluskey, the former Parkhead centre-forward. “It looks like Gary likes to play in the box and on the shoulder of the last defender all the time, which is really difficult to mark; whereas Stokes likes to come and get involved in the build-up. They seem to have a great understanding between each other.”
Both players have scored nine goals this season, although Stokes struck one of his for Hibernian, while Hooper’s consistency is all the more impressive since he missed several weeks of the campaign through a calf injury. But it would be a little unfair to each to categorise Hooper (who is quicker and more direct in his runs) as the poacher and Stokes (who is deft with the ball at his feet and plays with his head up) as the creative figure; there is more of an overlap to their capabilities.
“They can take it in turns to play on the shoulder of the last defender,” says McCluskey. “Although it seems that it’s Gary Hooper who seems to be mostly playing in that position, they do change at times. That makes it harder for defenders, because they don’t know who’s going to do what. But it’s all about the understanding as well. Sometimes that [chemistry] can just happen between two players, and obviously it will grow the longer they play together. You can get the understanding through training together as well as playing games.”
Under Billy McNeill, McCluskey was part of a forward line that included Charlie Nicholas and Frank McGarvey, with the three scoring more than 100 goals between them one season. On occasion, McNeill selected all of them up front, but mostly a partnership was selected for different games, and it was this competition for places, as well as the players’ rapport with each other, that compelled them to be so ruthless.
With Georgios Samaras, who was on the bench against Aberdeen, and Daryl Murphy, who is recovering from an ankle injury, also providing options for Lennon, there is no room for complacency among the forwards who make the starting XI. They also offer variety to the Celtic manager, so that he can play three up front, with Stokes and Samaras out wide, or pair the more robust Murphy with somebody through the middle, even if the Hooper and Stokes partnership seems the most convincing.
“The competition for places is important, it worked the season when we scored more than 100 goals,” says McCluskey. “Sometimes it was any two of the three, so it spurs you on to do well and get your goals, because you don’t want to be left out. There’s the option of the big guy Murphy, when he comes back. You can go a bit more route one with him because he’s taller and he’s really good in the air. So you could have the big guy Murphy up there knocking it on for Hooper’s pace. That’s another option that Neil will have.”
There is a fierce simplicity to Hooper’s play, a kind of bluntness that was evident as he callously shrugged Zander Diamond aside to score his first goal against Aberdeen. Stokes is prepared to be a little more intricate, and at times last Saturday he dropped deep, gathered the ball, turned, looked up and used the space ahead of him to create something.
This variety between the two is what holds so much promise, even if it is their goalscoring records that will cause opponents to be fraught, with Tynecastle the venue for their next assignment tomorrow night.
“I’m sure Hearts are saying, ‘Oh no, here they come, both of them just off hat tricks,’ ” says McCluskey. “That must be the worst feeling in the world for defenders.”