WHATEVER else Tony Watt goes on to achieve in his career, and all the evidence suggests it will be considerable, he is now destined to be remembered as the teenage rookie who shot down the best club team in the world.
The 18-year-old from Coatbridge was headline news yesterday, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom and throughout Europe for his momentous winning goal for Celtic against Barcelona on Wednesday night.
In what was only his 16th first-team appearance for the SPL champions, Watt saw his name go up in lights as he outshone Catalan superstars Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta on one of the greatest European club competition nights Scottish football has ever known.
It was an astonishing evening for Watt in what has been a meteoric rise for a young man who took a less than conventional route into the senior game. For just over three years ago, he was simply playing the game recreationally, uncertain of his capacity to forge a professional career.
Watt’s life changed when he responded to an advertisement placed in his local newspaper, the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser, by Airdrie United as they sought to bolster their youth team’s ranks. His potential was spotted by Jimmy Boyle, then the Airdrie youth coach and now the club’s manager. After a season in the under-17 side, Watt was fast-tracked into the Airdrie first team by Boyle when he took the top job at the club. His raw talent quickly attracted the attention of Celtic’s scouting system and in January 2011, having made just 15 appearances for Airdrie United, he signed for the club he supported as a boy.
It was a realisation of a dream which had been dismissed as fantasy by both his teachers at St Andrew’s High School in Coatbridge and in the offices of North Lanarkshire Council where Watt spent a brief and unhappy spell as an office worker.
“I was still at school when I first joined Airdrie but left to pursue football,” he recalled recently. “It was only part-time, so I went to the gym every day and got myself an office job with North Lanarkshire Council, just to get myself out the house. But I was sacked for going down to Liverpool on trial. I told them I had to go and they told me to choose one or the other. I said, ‘See you later then’. I had to make a choice and football obviously came first.
“I sat at my desk every day bored at the council office. If I was still there, I’d probably be sitting on my backside now doing nothing. I went down to Liverpool for two or three days, although nothing came of it in the end. My dad Paul was 100 per cent behind me. He said if that was what I wanted to do then go for it. My teachers all asked me: ‘What are you leaving school for?’. I told them I wanted to be a football player and they laughed. So it’s good when people don’t believe in you and you prove them wrong. If I was ever talking to kids like that I would tell them to go for their dreams.”
Celtic paid just £80,000 up front for Watt, with a subsequent additional payment of around £20,000 when he made his first-team breakthrough. It may just prove to be as good a £100,000 as they have ever invested.
Neil Lennon handed Watt his first-team debut in April this year. Against Motherwell at Fir Park, the match was goalless when the youngster was introduced for misfiring on-loan Polish striker Pawel Brozek. Watt’s impact was stunning. Within seven minutes of taking the field, he had scored twice and set Celtic on their way to a 3-0 win.
He was similarly influential when he was included in Lennon’s starting line-up for the first time at Inverness at the start of this season, scoring twice in a 4-2 win. A natural finisher, with significant pace and physical attributes, Watt had added further goals against St Mirren and Dundee United in the SPL before his fairytale Champions League group stage debut as a substitute against Barcelona.
As one of only two Scots to play for Celtic on Wednesday night – the other was Charlie Mulgrew – his contribution offered a hint of what the national team may benefit from in future years. Since breaking into the Scotland under-21 side this season, Watt has already scored three times in five appearances for his country and a senior call-up cannot be too far down the line.
In his pre-match briefing with newspaper reporters this week, Lennon presciently observed that you can never tell just where a hero will emerge from on occasions such as the one Celtic savoured on Wednesday. Their latest hero came from unheralded beginnings in Coatbridge and suddenly has the football world at his feet.