BY CRAIG STEPHEN
A stunning strike by a young Celtic striker against the then world’s best team six years ago remains seared into Craig Stephen’s brain. But, like just about everyone else who has seen him play, he wonders if Tony Watt will ever produce the magic again.
Holding the ball as Celtic looked to hold out for a mere seven minutes to record a famous Champions League victory against Barcelona, the logical thing for Fraser Forster is keep his hands on it, waste time and move it out to safety. Instead, the giant goalkeeper punts the ball high upfield. It could go anywhere.
But the big punt is completely missed by Xavi, allowing Tony Watt to sprint clear into the penalty area and beat Victor Valdes with a brilliantly taken finish.
Cue pandemonium as Celtic establish a 2-0 lead and, despite a late Messi goal, hang on for the win – Celtic’s finest in Europe for about a decade. The result is pivotal as the Scottish champions progress to the knockout stages.
The young striker had only been on the pitch for 11 minutes. As he waited on the bench for his chance, he was only known to the Celtic faithful, now he is being tipped for bigger things and celebrated in every bar with an Irish or green and white persuasion around the world – including the Havana drinking establishment I watched the match in surrounded by local fans preferring, naturally, the Latin outfit.
But what happened afterwards is almost a tragedy of Greek proportions. The 18-year-old, with what seemed like unlimited talent, would find soon himself on the periphery at Celtic, loaned out to a Belgian club and said to have an attitude problem that gnawed so much at two astute and experienced managers that they were revving the accelerator to get him out the door.
What exactly happened to a player that appeared to be the next Celtic super kid and Scotland’s scoring salvation?
The early years
Tony Watt was spotted while playing for Coatbridge amateur side Whifflet Athletic, earning trials with St. Mirren and Queen’s Park.
Both clubs rejected him, with the Buddies’ head of youth brandishing him “too lazy”. This was a portent of things to come. Undeterred, the then 15-year-old Watt tried his luck at Airdrie United and the side’s youth coach identified a raw talent.
Watt soon made an impression on the U-19 squad and in the pre-season of 2010-11 was promoted to the senior team. At just 16, Watt made his first-team debut in a friendly and scored twice.
In his competitive debut, Watt scored just 10 minutes after coming on as a sub. His second goal came at Glebe Park against Brechin City, and by this time he was already being tracked by Liverpool.
He was invited south for a trial in September 2010 and was involved in a youth match against Wolverhampton Wanderers. A move never materialised but the Anfield club kept tabs on him.
A mere six months after his Airdrie United debut, the now 17-year-old Watt signed a three-year deal with Celtic. He was scoring for fun in the development side, including one against Barcelona’s U-19s in the NextGen Series.
His form was noted by first-team coach Neil Lennon who included the teenager in his squad for a league game against Motherwell. Ironically, he became available due to suspension after receiving a red card in a youth match. Watt came off the bench after an hour and within minutes he pounced onto a Victor Wanyama cross and guided a shot into the net from a tight angle. Three minutes later, Watt rifled in a second from the edge of the box for a stunning debut.
Watt grabbed another double against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in his first start at the onset of the following season and added another couple of league goals to his tally against St. Mirren and Dundee United.
A superstar entrance
And then came 7th November 2012, when the unfancied champions of Scotland defeated Barcelona who hadn’t lost an away match in the Champions League for six years.
Celtic led through a first-half Wanyama header. Watt came on with less than 20 minutes remaining to replace Mikael Lustig. His movement and pace were electric as he timed his run to perfection, took one touch and bulleted his shot beyond the keeper.
So, it was the unheralded Watt and not Lionel Messi who adorned the back pages the next day, both in Scotland and beyond, and he was soon being compared to Charlie Nicholas, another mercurial talent who left the club too soon.
Four days later Watt struck against St. Johnstone, and a further four days later, he signed a four-year deal despite more interest from England; this time from West Bromwich Albion.
That was as good as it got for the teenager. Perhaps the plaudits for his super strike against the Catalans and the new deal made him feel secure of his place in the side and that, with his talent, he didn’t need to do any more donkey work.
He failed to score again that season and was used mostly as a substitute playing a modest role in Celtic’s League and Cup double.
Decline and fallout
Concerns began to surface that Watt was neither mature enough nor mentally capable of being a Celtic regular and, at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, he already seemed out of favour with boss Neil Lennon. He was sent to Belgian Pro League side Lierse on a season-long loan. The fact that millions of pounds were wasted on strikers Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki made Watt’s fall from grace even harder to stomach – and comprehend.
Few players loaned out by Celtic – and indeed most big clubs – return to their home club so good the manager couldn’t possibly leave him out. If a teenager is loaned out it’s usually to give them experience; Watt, however, had already proved he was capable. Suspicions were already raised as to how he was coping with the adulation after his winner against Europe’s top team.
In just nine months Tony Watt had slipped to fifth-choice striker at Celtic Park and instead of being involved in Champions League encounters with AC Milan, Barcelona and Ajax, he was in the backwaters of the Belgian league.
Neil Lennon wasn’t exactly supportive.
“I’m not of a mind to bring him back,” the Irishman said. “We’ve loaned him for the year and I would like him to see that out. There’s an immaturity about Tony and the reason for putting him on loan was to see life at a different place. We wanted him to sample a different culture and a different type of football. If it’s not going well, he needs to knuckle down and make it work, the onus is on him.”
The move initially seemed to invigorate him. Watt took just 90 seconds and two touches of the ball to score his first goal for Lierse. But that didn’t protect him the ire of his new manager Stanley Menzo, who described him as lazy and unfit.
He wasn’t the only one to think that: Scotland U-21 boss, Billy Stark, axed him from his squad, raising concerns about his fitness.
By December 2013 Watt had twice been sent home from training and sent off after 30 seconds against Charleroi. Menzo threatened to end the loan deal early.
On Boxing Day, Watt came off the bench to score two against Mechelen. Was this the kickstart to his flagging career?
Unfortunately for Tony, Menzo is a man not to be messed with and in March the striker was demoted to the reserves after publicly criticising his own gaffer. It would be Watt’s final game for the Belgian side and he returned home that summer.
When Ronny Deila took over from Neil Lennon in the summer of 2014, he made it clear that conditioning, performance analysis and sports science would be at the forefront of his regime. This would clearly be at odds with Watt’s apparent distaste for graft. He was now 20.
There was a public slap down from Deila in a friendly in Hamburg against St. Pauli in July 2014. Watt played well enough and almost scored but infuriated the Norwegian over a Celtic penalty. Watt snatched the ball to take it, immediately being berated by Deila and was forced to hand over the ball to Bahrudin Atajic (another young talent who failed to make his mark at Parkhead). It mattered not a jot that the Swede skied the penalty over the bar, Watt’s cards were marked.
In three seasons he played 34 times and scored eight goals in the hoops. His best season was 2012-13 when he played 20 times in the league.
Watt signed a lucrative five-year deal with Standard Liege. This didn’t work out and six months later he was in London with Charlton Athletic.
He was loaned out to Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers and Hearts, before moving back to Belgium with OH Leuven. His scoring rate was not especially impressive with any of those clubs, but he still gained a Scotland call-up during his time at Tynecastle.
But even then his condition was an issue.
Mark McGhee, the national coach, soon regretted his decision and delivered a scathing verdict. “He doesn’t train hard enough. I know that if you could get him to work hard in training, he would be a better player in the games.”
Watt experienced all of 12 minutes as a Scotland international, making his briefest of appearances in a meaningless match against the Czech Republic.
On his return to Charlton from Edinburgh, the Londoner’s manager Karl Robinson vowed to work Watt so hard he would cry.
“Tony has to apologise for certain things,” Robinson said. “I want to see whether he has the desire to play for me and this club.’
We now know the answer to that one.
And now we come full circle and Watt is again trying to revive his career and recapture his youthful achievements.
Despite saying in February 2017 that he had no intention of playing in Scotland for the next five or ten years, Watt is back in his homeland with St. Johnstone.
At Hearts, Robbie Neilson frothed about Watt’s talent. “Tony gives you something different from anything else in Scotland,” he said. “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.”
Despite getting the manager’s backing – one of the few to do so it would seem – and being well liked at the club, Watt scored only once in 16 games.
Could it be that all he needs is a sympathetic coach that knows how to get the best out of him? Could Saints’ boss Tommy Wright have the nous to turn that potential into reality?
Six goals in nine matches at St Johnstone and the Scottish Premiership’s player of the month award for August appear to suggest that, perhaps, finally he may have rediscovered the form that made him an immediate – albeit brief – hero at Parkhead. But then we have been here before.