CELTIC striker Tony Watt, who yesterday capped an incredible fortnight by signing a three-and-a-half year contract extension, hopes that his remarkable career trajectory might inspire other youngsters who fear a chance in professional football could be passing them by.
Watt, 18, whose new deal includes a one-year option, has become the toast of Scottish football following his clinching goal in Celtic’s Champions League victory over Barcelona last week – three years after no senior club was interested in him. The Coatbridge youngster has trodden a career path almost unheard of now, when players who go on to be full-time are typically in clubs’ youth systems by the age of 11.
At 15 years old, however, Watt was playing for local side Whifflets Athletic, having moved there a year earlier from Dunbeth Boys’ Club. And the Scotland under-21 international thanked his father Paul and Airdrie United coach Jimmy Boyle for transforming his fortunes, the latter signing him for the Lanarkshire club from where, 15 senior games later, he moved to Celtic in a £100,000 deal in January 2011.
“They both backed me and told me I would go places but I never believed in myself,”
he said. “They helped me when I was down and when I couldn’t bridge that gap between boys club and pro youth. I couldn’t get over the line and then Jimmy Boyle handed me a trial at Airdrie. Being 15 and playing boys’ club football can be just what happens. Only some people see it in you and it’s the same now. There are people who don’t think I am a good player and that’s just down to choice. I hope others in the position I was in can go on to emulate me.
“When I was at my boys’ club, I went on trial at St Mirren for three months but the head of youth at St Mirren said I was too lazy. I also went on trial with Queen’s Park five years ago but nothing came of it and I am glad I did not sign there because I would not be the player I am today if I did.
“Some of the people at youth level might have maxed out and learned all they can. Airdrie did as much as they could for me and then, when I came to Celtic, I added the fitness part. I became a better player through all that. The rejection at the likes of
St Mirren and Queen’s Park helped me in a way, as I know what it is like to feel rejected.”
Clubs did eventually wake up to Watt’s worth. In the course of scoring only three times but impressing mightily with Airdrie, he had trials with Liverpool, a day’s training at Rangers and interest from Blackburn, Bolton and Fulham among others. But the call from Celtic drowned out all others and is why a boy who, not so long ago, was watching the team from the stands, took little or no time to agree new terms.
“There would have been other options but I don’t want them,” he said. “This is the best place to learn – at one of the biggest clubs around. I would never have expected this two or three years ago. And, when I was younger, I would have picked Celtic over any English side anyway.”
Some would say it might have gone all too well. Watt now has his work cut out to eclipse the Barcelona strike that has earned him the sort of acclaim ordinarily reserved only the precious few footballers in this country. The player framed that quest in another way yesterday, however.
“People will know who I am because of that goal,” he said. “But I hope I can keep going, do more things and people will know me for other goals I score. If that is the highlight of my career, though, then I would not be devastated. Scoring against one of the best teams ever – does it get an better than that? That’s what I have been asking myself.”
Watt, in affecting fashion, could answer easily what meant most to him from what has resulted from the experience. “The thing that touched me the most was, when I walked in from the game, my mum and dad gave me a hug and we had a moment in the hall together,” he said. “There were tears from my mum as she was just so proud. My dad gave me a cuddle but he never shows his emotions. That meant the world to me.”