GARY HOOPER may wear the number 88 shirt this season but he has been assured he is the number one man at Celtic.
The Loughton-born striker made the £2.4million switch from Scunthorpe United to the Scottish giants after agreeing terms on a four-year deal this week, opening the door to potential Champions League football and one of the world’s greatest sporting rivalries, the Old Firm derby.
Hooper, 22, was one of the hottest properties outside the Premier League when Celtic came calling, following a prolific two seasons at Glanford Park that yielded 50 goals.
The Bhoys did have to beat off stiff competition from top-flight sides Newcastle United, Wolves and Blackpool, as well as a host of Championship outfits, including Middlesbrough, Leeds United and Burnley, while there was also an enquiry from West Ham.
However, it became clear that the man they call ‘Hoops’ had his heart set on joining the Hoops, as soon as Celtic had shown a genuine interest.
“Once he heard Celtic were in for him there was only one club for him,” said his father and representative Gary Hooper Snr. “He just said: ‘Dad, sort it for me please, I want to play for Celtic’.”
Despite the fact that he will have to compete with the likes of Greek international striker Georgios Samaras, Hooper has been assured that he will lead the line for the Glasgow club.
Hooper Snr revealed manager Neil Lennon was sold the second he saw him in action for Scunthorpe.
“Neil Lennon watched him two or three times when he was at Scunthorpe and loved him,” he said. “He told me when he first saw him that he wanted him to be his number-one striker.”
With the number ten shirt he wore with such distinction at Scunthorpe already taken by striker Marc-Antoine Fortune, Hooper opted for the odd choice of 88.
However, in addition to the local hotshot sharing a nickname with his new club, it appears the numbers all add up, too. Hooper was born in 1988, exactly 100 years after Celtic were formed. It also helped that the number eight is his favourite, perhaps providing a more simplistic explanation to the similarities.
The expectations from a fiercely passionate fanbase will be something Hooper has yet to experience, heightened by the fact that Celtic have lost out to the old foe Rangers in the previous two Scottish Premier League campaigns.
They will be hungry for revenge, and it will be up to Hooper to score the goals to fire the team to glory.
It is a lot to ask of a young player with humble beginnings in Loughton, but it is a challenge that his father has no doubt that he can rise to.
“He has a good head on his shoulders,” added Hooper Snr. “He is driven by football, not money, and just wants to play.
“Celtic are favourites for the league this year and Gary wants to win trophies with them.”
Hooper will be thrown in at the deep end when Celtic take their place in the Emirates Cup this weekend, which will be staged at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. As well as a clash against the Gunners, the team will also come up against French giants Lyon, with AC Milan the other team in the prestigious pre-season tournament. There is also the small matter of a Champions League first qualifying round return leg against Portuguese side Braga next Wednesday. Initiations do not get much tougher than that.