LOCAL FOOTBALLER Gary Hooper may not be a household name just yet, but he might just make a few people sit up and take notice on Sunday when he walks out onto the hallowed Wembley turf in the colours of Scunthorpe United for the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Hooper, who was brought up in Harlow before his family moved to Loughton, is the League One side’s star player, having bagged an incredible 29 goals already this season.
The 21-year-old has played a huge hand in guiding ‘Scunny’ to the play-off places in English football’s third tier, but Sunday’s game against Luton Town will represent the highlight of his short career, as he takes his place alongside the greats of the game to have played in the national stadium.
While Hooper’s focus is to fire the Iron to a first Football League trophy triumph, the game will also provide him with the grandest of all stages on which to showcase his talents, and send out a message that the country’s big boys will not be able to ignore.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said the youngster. “It’s the biggest game of my career so far, but hopefully there will be more to come in the future. It would be great to get on the scoresheet and lift the trophy.”
Hooper has defied the odds on his journey towards the top level of the professional ranks. His parents made the bold move to hoist him out of Tottenham Hotspur’s academy at the age of 14, and gambled on an alternative route through the depths of non-league football, in the hope that their son’s skills would attract another big fish.
After a spell with Maldon Town, Hooper was snapped up by conference outfit Grays Athletic, where he helped the club to two FA Trophy titles and promotion to the conference.
The next season he got his first big break with Southend United, but after struggling to impress, he was sent out on loan to local side Leyton Orient.
That was to be the turning point. Two goals in four appearances were enough to turn the heads of Hereford United, who came calling last season.
Despite having to live in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, the spell brought the best out of him. His 13 goals were instrumental in the side’s promotion to League One, and before long he was on his way to Scunthorpe for a fee believed to be in the region of £125,000.
“He wasn’t getting played enough at Tottenham so we took him out,” said Gary’s mother Carol. “It was a chance we took but he just wanted to play. We thought, if he’s good enough then he’ll get noticed by somebody else.”
The gamble has paid off in spectacular fashion, and he is now plying his trade at the same club that once played host to the likes of England legends Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence, while the country’s finest cricketing all-rounder Ian Botham also enjoyed a spell at the North Lincolnshire club.
Much akin to his previous clubs, Hooper has taken no time to settle in, and is already firing his way into the record books. He is just three goals away from equalling Billy Sharp’s record of 32 goals for the club in one season. No wonder then, that there are already clubs clamouring for his signature, with a reported price tag of £1.5million having been placed on his head.
As for Hooper, a return to his beloved Spurs would be the dream ticket to the big time, although he has no regrets about leaving all those years ago.
“I’d like to play for a side in the Championship and maybe even higher. It would be great to play for Spurs, they’re my team and I’d love to go back,” he said.
“I was there until I was 14 but it was definitely for the better that I moved.
“I would probably have just ended up in the reserves.”
There is one fan who is in no doubt that the young striker is on the road to stardom. Hooper’s father Gary has followed his son’s career closer than anybody, and he is convinced he will one day be competing on the same field as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard in the Premier League.
“He’ll definitely be at the top one day,” said Hooper. “We’re all very proud of him and we’re going to be there on Sunday.
“I’ll be having a little flutter on him scoring a hat-trick.”
Don’t bet against it.
m The final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy will be screened on Sky Sports, kick-off 1.15pm on Sunday.