FORMER Celtic midfielder Stiliyan Petrov has urged Gary Hooper not to leave the club for Queens Park Rangers, insisting it would be a mistake for the striker to head to the English Championship.
Celtic are believed to have accepted a bid of £5 million from QPR and the Essex-born Hooper could now be on his way to Loftus Road after making clear his intentions to return to England. Norwich and Hull both had offers for the 25-year-old turned down earlier this year.
Hooper has scored 82 goals in three years at Celtic Park but has resisted attempts to extend his contract beyond next summer. Celtic manager Neil Lennon admitted earlier this week that he thought the forward’s mind may be elsewhere but Hooper was keen to play against Cliftonville on Tuesday and came off the bench as Celtic eased into the third qualifying round of the Champions League with a 2-0 win at Parkhead.
But the former Southend player, who joined Celtic from Scunthorpe in a £2.4 million deal, looks now to be nearing a return south as he bids to win England recognition, although Petrov has warned that the Championship is not the place to stake his claim.
The former Bulgaria midfielder was back at Celtic Park yesterday to launch a special benefit match he has organised for September, that will feature former Parkhead favourites Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert and Roy Keane, as well as other top names such as Dimitar Berbatov and Gareth Barry.
Petrov was forced to retire from the game after being diagnosed with leukaemia last year and, while now in remission, his body will not allow him to play again so he has turned his attention to coaching at Aston Villa and developing a new charity foundation aimed at raising funds for research to find a cure for leukaemia.
But having watched Hooper’s cameo against Cliftonville on Tuesday night, he was asked about his own decision to leave for Aston Villa after seven years at Celtic, and whether the forward was right to move south now. He said: “Parkhead is a hard place to leave if you want to make a step up in your career. Obviously, when I went a lot of the fans asked me: ‘Why do you want to leave such a great club?’
“I replied that it was a great club and that maybe I’d regret it but, ultimately, I was happy because I went to a league where the players were stronger and faster and I learned a lot there. Up here sometimes you’d look ahead and think ‘this is an easy game and we’ll get through it’, but in the Premier League you can’t think like that. Every game is so hard. Gary Hooper will learn a lot if he goes there [to the Premier League]. He’d find it difficult but, with his ability, he could become one of the top strikers in that division. Gary won’t have any problems there.
“However, I would be surprised if he went to QPR and, in my opinion, I don’t think he should make that move. If he goes it should be to the Premier League – otherwise, he has a great environment here.”
Asked whether he felt Hooper would have to return south of the border, even if it was to QPR, and for as little as the £5m, to pursue his ambition of playing for England, Petrov added: “I don’t think so. I wouldn’t advise him to take that step. He wants to play for England but, if he’s scoring regularly for Celtic, that shouldn’t be a problem. Goals are goals, whether you’re scoring them in France, Spain or Scotland. As for the size of the fee, the selling club makes that price and if Celtic let him go it will mean that they’re happy with that fee.”