Tony Watt: Where is the Celtic starlet who sank Barca?

22-year-old has struggled since scoring that famous goal in 2012

Tony Watt, now at Hearts, has struggled since he scored his famous goal for Celtic against Barcelona. Photograph: Getty/Steve Welsh

Tony Watt, now at Hearts, has struggled since he scored his famous goal for Celtic against Barcelona. Photograph: Getty/Steve Welsh

 

Tony Watt lasted 80 minutes of the game between Hamilton Academical and Heart of Midlothian on Monday. The only surprise for the 2,339 in attendance was that the Hearts forward featured for that long. Watt could barely have been less effective, just as he could not have looked any less interested.

Watt’s struggle had sadly poetic timing. With Barcelona back in Scotland for a meeting with Celtic, memories are inevitably conjured of November 7th 2012. It was then Watt, as an 18-year-old substitute, burst through before blasting home the crucial second goal as Neil Lennon’s team defeated Barça 2-1. Even for a club so immersed in big occasions, this stood out as one of the finest in Celtic’s history.

Watt left Celtic Park that night with a message from Lennon: “Don’t let this be all you are remembered for.” Lennon wanted the goal to be a springboard. Watt had pace, power and the uncanny ability to keep the ball attached to his boot that separated him from other Scots.

By the following August Watt was dispatched on loan to the Belgian team Lierse, never to return to the club he had grown up supporting and who had paid around £100,000 to sign him from Airdrie after only a handful of first-team games. Tellingly for a player who made such an impact, there was no sense of lingering disappointment in Glasgow when he left. One of Celtic’s experienced international players predicted Watt would be driving a bus within a decade.

If that insult owed plenty to exaggeration, the underlying issue has been a recurring one. It relates to Watt’s attitude. His approach to training at Celtic was such team-mates were said to resent his lack of application. Despite the Barcelona intervention, Watt had not produced nearly enough to merit special treatment. A lack of fitness often seemed apparent in the latter stages of games.

The Lierse chapter never looked like being a happy one. Stanley Menzo, their manager, branded Watt “physically not good enough”. Nine goals in a season attracted the attention of Standard Liège, who paid Celtic £1m for Watt’s services in the summer of 2014. The striker lasted six months of a five-year contract before Charlton Athletic brought him back to the UK.

Second Captains

The most profitable spell of Watt’s career followed. And still, he was on the move again last November, this time on loan to Cardiff City. Russell Slade, who took Watt to Wales, typifies thoughts towards him.

“The fans took to him really quickly, as did the players,” Slade says. “And he did well for me. We knew he was a talent. He is one of those – he picks the ball up, turns with it, gets at centre-backs when he is in a real positive mood. He is unpredictable.

“I had no problems at all with his attitude. All Tony needs is communication – that is important to him. He needs to know where he stands in everything. He needs to feel wanted and part of something.

“It hasn’t quite happened for him, for one reason or another but he still has time on his side. A lot came to him early, which doesn’t always have the most positive effect. If Tony retains a hunger, he could still go to the highest level. It is in his hands.”

A Cardiff transfer embargo meant Watt’s stay was short-lived. Cue another loan, this time to Blackburn Rovers, before a wish to move closer to home alerted Hearts this summer.

By Slade’s testimony, and those at Watt’s current club, he is immensely popular. John Robertson, Hearts’ record scorer, regards Watt’s ability as “incredible”. Nonetheless, a promising start in Edinburgh has petered out with Watt’s desperation to have the ball taking him to areas where he cannot hurt opponents and, surprisingly for one so apparently extroverted, a lack of confidence in front of goal shining through. He has scored once this season.

The 22-year-old has been spared the limelight, with Hearts deliberately keeping him from media duties. Robbie Neilson is the latest manager to try to solve the Tony Watt conundrum. “Tony gives you something different from anything else in Scotland,” Neilson says. “He can turn a game in a split second. In training we see him go by three, four, five players. It is just about getting consistency from him. That’s the key to his development.

“When the ball goes forward, he just wants to be on the ball. He is a great kid, one you can’t help talking to and liking. The boys all love him. He played games in the Championship last year where he dominated. People couldn’t get near him. He still has that huge potential.”

Watt will turn 23 at the end of December. If he remains far too young to be drinking in the last-chance saloon, there is a question over what establishments will continue to serve him, and at what level. If not yet “Where did it all go wrong?” the direction of travel is ominous.

(Guardian service)

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