THERE was more than a little irony in the fact that on the very day Celtic were fined by UEFA for their fans arbitrarily flying Palestinian flags, new signing Stefan Scepovic provided further evidence of the club’s current strong links to football in the Holy Land.
Scotland will be the sixth country that the 24-year-old Serbian striker will have set up footballing home in. And time spent in Israel played a significant part in his protracted £2.3 million move to Glasgow from second-tier Spanish club Sporting Gijon.
In 2013, Scepovic moved from Partizan Belgrade to Israeli league club Ashdod, then boasting a midfielder by the name of Nir Biton, having spent the 2011-12 season netting 13 goals in 31 league games for Israeli side Hapoel Acre. That tour of duty with Acre two and a half years ago pitted him against a then Ashdod defender Efe Ambrose, as well as Biton.
“I played against them once. I played right up against Efe and scored in a 2-2 draw,” Scepovic says, the Serbian first arriving in Israel a year after Beram Kayal departed the country to join Celtic. “Then I went on to play with Nir later, after Efe left for Celtic. I know Nir well, I’m very close to him. I was on the phone to him all day over the weekend and he was very happy when I eventually signed here. He’s away with the national team but we will see each other soon. He was definitely encouraging me to come, though. He told me great things about the club but I knew this already.”
Great things were expected of Scepovic when he left his home city of Belgrade, and local club OFK, at the age of 20 to join Sampdoria on loan. At that stage he had only made 29 senior league appearances. “In Serbia all the clubs in the league, they live to sell their players,” he says. “They had an offer for me, and I had to go. I had no choice. I was too young, I didn’t have a lot of games in the first team, I wasn’t ready – but now I’m here and I am ready.”
In the past two years he has readied himself for a breakthrough move by becoming a one-in-two goalscorer, that ratio pretty much running across his spells with Acre, Partizan, Ashdod, and latterly Gijon, his tally in Spain an impressive 23 goals in 41 appearances. He believes his penalty-box prowess has developed in recent seasons for obvious reasons, the move from Club Brugge to Acre in 2011 a turning point.
“I wasn’t getting enough games, so because of that I asked to go out on loan. I needed games,” he says. “When you’re young it’s the most important thing for you. After that everything changed for me. Playing gave me confidence and I became a different player.”
Celtic manager Ronny Deila has identified the eight-times capped Serbian as a different striker to those he has joined at the Glasgow club. Unlike Anthony Stokes, Leigh Griffiths or Jo Inge Berget, Scepovic has been touted as a target man by those at Celtic Park.
With Swedish forward John Guidetti also pitching up as Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde have been packed off on loan, what has been achieved is the immediate target of overhauling a striking department seriously lacking subsequent to Gary Hooper’s departure.
Scepovic, though, has no intention of selling himself as a man who will hit the target as a Hooper-like 25-goal-a-season source. Nor as the man that will prevent Celtic fouling up in Champions League qualifiers next season and having to settle for the consolation of the Europa League group stages again.
“A team should never depend on one player,” he says. “We all have to do our job on the pitch. It’s not tennis, we don’t play one against one – but Celtic have played Champions League before and we’ll see if we can do it again next season. But for now we will concentrate on this season. I’ll do my speaking on the pitch where I have to do my job. I don’t want to promise anything.”