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Sport Gary Hooper post-Celtic drift in focus as striker's rise derailed by the cruel irony of timing

13:20  18 september  2020
13:20  18 september  2020 Source:   msn.com

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He marched south in search of an England call-up that never came.

Seven years later, Gary Hooper is finally discovering that big, wide, world - just perhaps not in the way he imagined.

The former Celtic striker is set to sign for Kerala Blasters in India following a short spell at Wellington Phoenix.

32 is no strange age to explore intercontinental options of that kind but as Hooper's career seemingly enters its twilight, there's a lingering sense of what could have been.

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When he does hang up the boots, mind you, no one will talk of a career wasted.

Hooper's goalscoring record in Scotland and in England's second-tier stands up against anyone.

For Celtic, he notched 82 times in 138 appearances, including 5 from 13 Champions League outings.

At Sheffield Wednesday, his last UK club, Hooper scored 31 in 89, a spell that included a 14-month injury absence.

But it's the three years in between that are most telling.

There was something a bit galling for Celtic fans that it was for Norwich City he chose to leave Parkhead.

A perennial yo-yo club, some felt a move to the Canaries (despite their Premier League status) was beneath the man Neil Lennon once described as Celtic's best forward since Henrik Larsson.

There were accusations of following the money but "English footballer wants to play in the English top-flight" is as likely and honest a motivation as any.

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There was also clear frustration on Hooper's part in how his remarkably consistent form in Scotland had not been rewarded with international recognition, later remarking English players "don't get a look in" when they head north.

Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton would surely agree.

Hooper scored eight times that first campaign but it wasn't enough to save Norwich from relegation - another hit to his England ambitions.

Not only that, being unable to establish himself in the Premier League over a sustained period seemingly closed off the path so well trodden by others who left Celtic.

Victor Wanyama and Virgil van Dijk both followed the route of provincial club success before earning moves to big hitters Tottenham and Liverpool, respectively.

There was element of risk in Hooper joining a side likely to be battling the drop, where goal-scoring opportunities would diminish and style of play likely differ greatly from what had made him so effective at Celtic.

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Still, all was not lost and a strong return in the Championship would well have put Hooper back on the radar.

That was, until, a calf injury derailed his pre-season.

Hooper was out for over two months and missed the crucial opening weeks of the campaign.

His recovery was slow and he didn't score a first league goal until almost December 2014.

But he found the net a further 11 times until the end of the season as Norwich bounced straight back into the Premier League via the play-offs.

What must have initially felt like a second chance at the big time for Hooper quickly turned sour, however.

He'd been linked with a loan move to Sheffield Wednesday and was forced to deny the deal had fallen through because the club wouldn't provide his family with a VIP box at Hillsborough.

He then ruptured an ankle ligament four games into the season and fell well out of the picture under boss Alex Neil.

A loan to Wednesday eventually materialised in October 2015 and it was made permanent shortly after the New Year.

Hooper spent four seasons with the Owls, and although the move sparked an upturn in his form.

A serious hip issue meant Hooper did not play between Boxing Day 2017 and his eventual release in May 2019.

The frontman later speculated he'd been labelled damaged goods as he struggled to find another club.

It was from there he headed for Wellington and now, for India.

He was briefly linked with a return to Celtic last summer but that, like his Premier League dream, quietly fizzled out.

Hooper's post-Celtic drift may look like a cautionary tale as to why the grass isn't always greener.

But it's more a story of injuries dealing a talented player a body blow at the most inopportune moments.

It'd be harsh to classify Hooper as injury-prone, moreso their timing could hardly have been worse.

Perhaps, too, his decision to jump ship from Celtic when he did was not the right one.

For a man who, for so long, arrived on-cue to find the net with such natural precision, that's a cruel irony.

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