GARY Hooper yesterday completed a remarkable journey from non-league obscurity to join a club participating at the elite level of European football when he signed a four-year contract with Celtic.
As the 22-year-old looks to make his debut for Neil Lennon's side in the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying round tie against Braga in Portugal tonight, he has already set his sights on a potential tie in the next round with the club who broke his heart as a teenager. If Celtic overcome Braga, one of their possible opponents in the play-off round are Tottenham Hotspur, to whom Hooper still bears resentment for dismissing his top flight potential as a schoolboy.
"I was a Spurs fan as a kid and trained with them from the age of seven," said Hooper. "Then, when I was 14, they gave me a 20-minute trial to see if I would be kept on. Just 20 minutes of one game and they released me.
"I don't know how you can look at someone in 20 minutes. I was obviously really sad about it. It has motivated me a lot ever since, because I want to show them I can play at the highest level and score against them. It would be nice to go back to Tottenham as a Champions League player and even better to score against them.
"I've been trying my hardest to show what I can do ever since they let me go. Yes, when I was released, there were doubts in my mind. But I played Sunday league football for a while, then joined Grays Athletic in the Conference. Southend United then took a chance on me and I've managed to make progress ever since. It's been a long and hard road, but it has made me the person and player I am now."
A haul of 50 goals in two seasons for Scunthorpe United attracted the interest of several clubs before Celtic secured Hooper for a fee of around 2.4 million. The paperwork on the deal was completed yesterday morning, just in time for Hooper to join his new team-mates on their charter flight to Portugal.
"It was touch and go whether I would be able to travel with the team," said Hooper, "and they thought they might have to send me out on a later flight. I'm just delighted to be here and hopefully I will play some part of the match against Braga."
Hooper revealed the most serious rival offer he had was from Middlesbrough but he turned down the opportunity to work under former Celtic manager Gordon Strachan.
"I went to have a look around the Middlesbrough set-up and had a chat with the manager," he said, "but it didn't compare to Celtic. As soon as they were in for me, I wanted to sign. It could have happened sooner, but Scunthorpe were asking for too much money to start with."
The man who will wear the bizarre shirt number of 88 at Celtic, because it is both the year of his birth and his lucky number, is confident he can carry his prolific form into the SPL and Europe with his new club. "It's another step up from the Championship in England," he said. "I scored 20 goals last season with a team in the lower half of the Championship and I'm looking to score a minimum of 20 in my first season or Celtic - hopefully more. My job is to score goals and I can either play up front on my own or as part of a two or three man strike force."
Meanwhile, St Mirren have signed Paul McGowan from Celtic on a season-long loan deal.
The 22-year-old attacker becomes St Mirren manager Danny Lennon's tenth new recruit of the close-season.
McGowan, who has had loan spells with Morton and Hamilton, signed a new two-year deal with Celtic in April but manager Neil Lennon was keen to send him out on loan to gain more first team experience.
"Paul has qualities which we are looking for and I'm delighted to get him on loan for the season," said St Mirren manager Lennon. "He's a match-winner and is very versatile from middle to front, he's a threat and scores goals.
"I remember him as an 18-year-old down at Morton, albeit he was in the lower leagues, and I've always followed him since then. With Celtic being such a big club it's very difficult to break through on a regular basis but I certainly believe he has the qualities to play in any SPL club.
"Paul's has an absolutely wonderful pedigree, he's got all the right tools in his bag and I'm looking forward to the quality he can bring to St Mirren.
"In terms of club size it's night and day between Celtic and St Mirren but in a football sense I don't see a difference as they are competing in the same league.
"He'll be playing at a top level so I think it will benefit him and St Mirren. It's good to have him for the full season, it shows the commitment of the player. That's the quality and the standards we are setting at this football club."