WE LIVE IN A FOOTBALL WORLD WHERE MONEY IS KING, an age in which a vastly wealthy owner can bypass the traditional avenues to success. Where previously the biggest and most trophy-laden clubs were those with a prestigious history, a vibrant fan culture and booming gate receipts, today they are those with the most dispensable cash.
Fans have been guilty of falling into the dichotomous trappings of modern day football between ideals and reality. With one breath, many will bemoan the state of football, claiming that the game has gone, thanks largely to exorbitant transfer fees, astronomical wages and the ever-ascending price of the matchday experience. Then with the next, these very same fans will lambast a chairman or owner for failing to dip their hand in their pocket and match rivals for players, often for the same over-inflated prices they previously declared were all that was wrong with the sport.
Fortunately, there are still facets of the game that have continued to exist. The most prevalent, and one that draws the most delight from any fanbase, is when a young player is given a debut and allowed to flourish within the first team. There is no other phenomenon quite like it within the sport. Consider Harry Kane and the bond he shares with Tottenham fans. Of course, his record stands up to even the most studious eye, but the connection between himself and those in the stand goes way beyond his astonishing ability to find the net. Such a robust bond is thanks to the fact he is “one of their own”. Would Álvaro Morata be lauded so much was he in Kane’s position, with identical scoring records? No chance.
Consider Harry Kane and the bond he shares with Tottenham fans. Of course, his record stands up to even the most studious eye, but the connection between himself and those in the stand goes way beyond his astonishing ability to find the net. Such a robust bond is thanks to the fact he is one of their own. Would Álvaro Morata be lauded so much were he in Kane’s position, with identical scoring records? No chance.
What about two of the most eulogised sides in modern history? It is inconceivable that Manchester United’s treble-winning side of 1999 would be remembered in such glowing terms had so many of the squad not been derived from the Class of ‘92. The same applies to Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side of the late-2000s, often mentioned in the same breath as some of the finest teams ever to play. Such praise would be stilted if they had fewer graduates from their La Masia academy.
For fans there is rarely a pleasure more visceral than witnessing the ascension of one of their own, but what happens when a player’s star shines too brightly, too quickly? This is the story of a young player who, for a brief moment, rose to the game’s elite, only to tumble back down.
Despite being a season ticket-owning Celtic fan, Tony Watt did not make his professional debut for the club. His first taste of competitive football came when representing Airdrie United. Watt, unusually for a player in this generation, did not graduate from a prestigious academy. Instead, the bustling striker honed his craft playing with a collection of pals in streets and parks. This all changed when Airdrie boss, Jimmy Boyle, gave him his first opportunity. During a goal-laden pre-season, the 17-year-old Watt was soon attracting the gazes of some of the planet’s biggest clubs.
Watt’s captain at Airdrie, Paul Lovering, recalls the moment he realised how special the precocious talent was. “Tony came off the bench and scored twice. He chipped one into the top corner from an impossible angle. In my life I’ve never seen anyone else score from that angle. The minute he did that I knew the boy was unbelievable.”
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A trial at Rangers and a week spent at Melwood training with Liverpool did little to divert his attention when it became clear that a move to his boyhood favourites was a realistic possibility, and so in January 2011, just six months after entering professional football, Watt signed for Celtic. The move was reported to be worth £80,000 amid numerous performance-related add-ons that have become intrinsic to modern-day deals. Referencing Rangers, Watt himself explains his thought process best. “They are a big club, so it was good to hear, but Celtic put in a bid and I would have chosen them over anybody.”
Aside from the obvious difficulties in making such a momentous leap, Watt’s integration into the Celtic setup was made all the more difficult thanks to the turbulent changes being experienced by the club. The 2010/11 season was manager Neil Lennon’s first, and after the apocalyptic reign of Tony Mowbray, the Hoops were still scrambling in an effort to assert domestic dominance. The drop in Celtic’s standards was visible in their European outings where they were knocked out of both the Champions League and Europa League before a group-stage ball was kicked by Braga and Heerenveen respectively. To compound Watt’s woe, Celtic also boasted an impressive roster of strikers, with whom Watt would have to contend if he was to secure a starting berth. Anthony Stokes, Gary Hooper, Daryl Murphy and Georgios Samaras were all talented attackers who barred his path.
The drop in Celtic’s standards was visible in their European outings where they were knocked out of both the Champions League and Europa League before a group stage ball was kicked by Braga and Heerenveen respectively. To compound Watt’s woe, Celtic also boasted an impressive roster of strikers, with whom Watt would have to contend if he was to secure a starting berth. Anthony Stokes, Gary Hooper, Daryl Murphy and Georgios Samaras were all talented attackers who barred his path.
The assumption was that making a move to compete in the youth and reserve teams in place of the adult rough and tumble life at Airdrie would stunt his development. Yet, such was Watt’s talent, it wasn’t long before he was impressing sufficiently in training to warrant his Scottish Premier League debut. Just over a year after joining the club, Watt was thrown into the fray. With Celtic struggling to gain a lead against a stubborn Motherwell outfit, Lennon gambled and turned to the 18-year-old.
Lennon, even in his most delusional daydreams, would never have anticipated his new charge’s impact. Watt, to the delight of the travelling Celtic support, opened the scoring in audacious fashion, tucking in a neat cross to the back post from Victor Wanyama with an elegant back-heeled finish. Just three minutes later, he contrived to leave yet more jaws close to the floor, when he sent a low driven shot beyond Darren Randolph.
Naturally, there was an immense buzz around the youngster. Assistant manager – and Celtic playing legend in his own right – Johan Mjällby was quick to praise him. “We need strikers who are very hungry for goals, so we are delighted for Tony today.” To temper optimism, though, Watt was deployed on just two further occasions that season.
If the 2011/12 season was when Watt announced himself to the nation, then 2012/13 would be when he announced himself to the world. His first start came in the third match of the season, an away fixture against the notoriously tricky Inverness, Celtic’s bogey-team.
Watt again secured headlines with another brace. While the second was a routine striker’s finish, the first was something special. Dropping deep, Watt secured possession before turning sharply, nutmegging his marker with a deft outside-of-the-boot touch. The bustling teen then drove the remaining 30 yards to goal before clipping a finish past the helpless goalkeeper.
St Mirren were next to face Watt’s wrath, a late header adding to the striker’s burgeoning repertoire. Another fine individual effort was provided against Dundee United a few weeks later. Watt was fast earning a reputation as a young striker capable of it all – quick, powerful, intelligent, skilful and above all brave – but the best was yet to come.
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After Rangers’ financial meltdown and subsequent demotion to the lower tiers, Celtic were given a free run to the title, allowing the Glasgow giants to devote more time and energy to their European escapades, a theatre that had provided scant enjoyment in the previous five or six years. It was on this stage that Tony Watt provided his most memorable moment.
On 7 November 2013, a day that will live in infamy for every Celtic fan, the Hoops played host to Barcelona. As expected, Celtic played the part of the plucky underdog against the amassed attacking talents of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and Sánchez. Fortunately, football has a habit of surprising.
Lennon’s men were imperious that night. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster provided a seemingly unending string of saves that would prompt the Catalan media to dub him “The Wall”. The back four of Lustig, Matthews, Ambrose and Wilson played with a blend of bravery and intelligence, furiously blocking all of Barcelona’s avenues to goal. Celtic’s midfield, deprived of the ball for huge stretches, worked and worked, shuttling across the field in a tireless phalanx.
Such rigid work was rewarded in the 21st minute when Wanyama rose above a flailing Jordi Alba to power a header beyond Víctor Valdés. Celtic maintained their lead well into the second half, but to the millions watching, it seemed only a matter of time before Barcelona’s relentless pressure would prove too intense. Lennon, acutely aware of this, sent on his unflappable teenage sensation to alleviate some of this pressure, and provide his side with an attainable out-ball.
Watt fulfilled his role, and then some. In the 82nd minute, he provided a moment that will be forever etched into the minds of every Celtic fan. A long ball from Forster was misjudged by Xavi, who inadvertently deflected it into the path of Watt. The youngster burst onto the loose ball with an electrifying turn of pace, taking it under control with a measured touch. With the goal at his mercy, and the weight of the moment pressing heavily on his shoulders, Watt belied the gravity of the situation to slam the ball beyond Valdés.
The stadium erupted, 60,000 green and white-clad fans delirious with joy. Watt, fully embroiled in the situation, wheeled away to his adoring fans, grasping and shaking his shirt with barely contained elation. The image quickly became one of the most iconic in the club’s illustrious history, certainly the most indelible of the decade.
The world now knew the name of Tony Watt and the potential he held. The future of his career formulated in the minds of football fans in an instant; continue to score bags of goals for Celtic, win trophies and earn a lucrative move to one of the game’s modern giants.
This vision of the future, sadly, would never materialise.
The 2013/14 season proved to be the beginning of the end for Watt. After making a name for himself in the previous campaign and amassing almost 30 appearances, he understandably thought this was to be his first season as a guaranteed starter, a feeling exacerbated with the sale of Celtic’s top goalscorer and talisman Gary Hooper. Lennon evidently disagreed, using his summer funds to purchase Amido Baldé for £1.8 million and Teemu Pukki for £2.4 million; not inconsiderable sums for Celtic at that time.
A medium was found with a loan move to Belgian top-flight side Lierse. Understandably downbeat with the development, Watt did his best to paint the move in a positive light. “I had a meeting at Celtic and got told there was an option to come here. It’s a good opportunity and I’d like to give it a try.”
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To say his time in Belgian football was eventful would be an understatement. His spell at Lierse was characterised by Watt enduring a series of running battles with coach Stanley Menzo. A steady stream of goals was not enough to prevent Menzo from dubbing him “fat and lazy”. Watt’s response was as comical as it was infuriating for his increasingly beleaguered gaffer. After netting a brace in the Belgian Cup, Watt took off his top to display his naked upper body, displaying the fact that he was indeed not fat. Explaining his actions Watt said plainly: “I just wanted to show that I am not fat. I just wanted to show everyone that I am in prime condition.”
If Watt thought that his parent coach Lennon would bat his corner and stand up for him, he was desperately mistaken. When prompted about his loanee’s troubled time, Lennon said: “There’s an immaturity about Tony and the reason for putting him on loan was we wanted him to sample a different culture and a different type of football. If it’s not going well, then he needs to knuckle down and make it work. The onus is on him.”
Watt’s Jekyll-and-Hyde spell at Lierse was hyperbolically summed up by Menzo. “Today I am glad we have him, but tomorrow I might want to murder him! That’s just how it is with him.”
Still, his time there was solid, as he scored a credible nine goals from 15 games, good enough to secure a move up the footballing ladder to Belgian big boys Standard Liège in a deal rumoured to exceed £1 million. It was hoped that Watt could lay his roots and establish a strong base for his career to blossom. Sadly, the move was the beginning of a nomadic period that continues to this day. His failed period in Liège yielded just three goals, forcing the club’s owner, Roland Duchatelet, to transfer him to his other plaything, Charlton Athletic.
Charlton, Cardiff, Blackburn and Hearts all took a gamble on Watt, only to be left dejected. A predictable pattern emerged any time Watt joined a new club; the coach would initially be impressed with his talent, only to be dejected by the lethargy that quickly infected his game. Unbelievably, since Watt’s loan at Lierse came to an end nearly four years ago, the once buoyant forward has only scored 20 competitive goals.
As with so many precocious forwards who break forth with a talent so immense, Watt seems to be gripped by arrested development. This inability to throw off the shackles of perpetual adolescence has been visible from his very first trial at Airdrie. When asked to attend the game in smart but casual attire, Watt had his own interpretation of the instruction. Ex-skipper Lovering takes up the tale: “In football terms, the boys knew that meant club tracksuits. All the lads arrived in their trackie bottoms and polo-shirts. Tony appeared in a pair of Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt and a rucksack.”
Watt can now be found plying his trade in the Belgian second division for OH Leuven, where he has become a vocal presence on Twitter with his movie review site Watt to Watch. In case you were wondering, his reviews are shallow yet oddly enjoyable. Watt has carved a life for himself that is the envy of most of the world, one that shouldn’t be sniffed at, yet a career that is a million miles from the vision many Celtic fans held after he captured the hearts and minds of so many that night against Barcelona. While he is still at the age of just 23, it regrettably looks as though he will require a miracle to fulfil the promise he once displayed.
After the maelstrom of attention his Champions League goal garnered him, Watt’s coach Neil Lennon said to his impressionable gem: “Don’t let this become all you are remembered for.” Sadly, for Watt, Lennon’s words proved to be more precognitive than anyone could have imagined.