The striker grabbed Europe's attention with his winner against the Spanish giants in one of the Bhoys' most famous triumphs, but his journey to the top has been an unusual one
By Chris Myson
As Celtic led Barcelona going into the final stages of their clash in Glasgow, Xavi slipped and a young substitute seized on the chance to fire a superb finish past Victor Valdes. Suddenly, the whole of Europe was asking, ‘Who is Tony Watt?’.
Scoring the decisive goal to earn his side a 2-1 win over one of the greatest teams of all time was a moment the teenager described as the best of his life. As a result, Celtic now have the chance to reach the last 16 of the Champions League if they can secure a positive result against Benfica.
For Watt, the winning goal against Barca capped a remarkable and storied rise to the top of the Scottish game. On that night he grabbed the continent’s attention, but up until then he had already been making waves north of the border.
Over recent months, the 18-year-old from Coatbridge has shown he is capable of achieving significant personal and team honours in his future career, but such a path has not always looked so likely.
As little as three years ago, Watt was not honing his skills at one of the nation’s best football academies, nor was he working his way up the ranks of youth football or developing in the lower leagues. Up until 2009 he was simply playing the game for fun, sometimes in local parks with his friends, completely unaware of his true potential.
|ONE STEP AWAY
|Read our match preview as Celtic aim to make it into the Champions League knockout stages against Benfica|
Speaking earlier this year, Watt explained: "My friend came through the Airdrie youth system and told me to phone up for a trial. So I got in touch with the youth coach Jimmy Boyle, then I went in, played a trial and Jimmy signed me."
After one year playing for the Under-17s at New Broomfield, Watt was immediately promoted to Airdrie’s first team when Boyle, the man who spotted him, was appointed as the club’s manager.
"I played a year at Under-17 level and six months in the Airdrie first team and that is about it. I did not play seriously at all when I was younger and only played for fun up until then," added Watt.
"I played well for the youth team and scored a few goals, so when Jimmy stepped up to manage the first team in the summer, I followed. I made my debut in a Challenge Cup tie against Ayr and things have grown from there."
So Watt had a foot on football’s ladder, but he was still a long way from making it. His contract with Airdrie was just a part-time one, and he had to take a job in the offices of North Lanarkshire Council after leaving school.
It was those days, where he says he was laughed at by teachers and then work colleagues for his dreams of becoming a professional footballer that strengthened his resolve and will to succeed.
"Airdrie was only part-time, so I went to the gym every day and got myself an office job," said Watt.
"I was sacked for going down to Liverpool on trial. I told them I had to go and they told me to choose one or the other. I said, 'See you later then'. I had to make a choice and football obviously came first.
"I sat at my desk every day bored at the council office. If I was still there, I’d probably be sitting on my backside now doing nothing. I went down to Liverpool for two or three days, although nothing came of it in the end."
|As little as three years ago, Watt was not honing his skills at one of the nation’s best football academies, nor was he working his way up the ranks of youth football - he was simply playing the game for fun, totally unaware of his true potential|
Liverpool may not have swooped to sign him, but Watt was fast attracting attention for his performances at Airdrie, where he made 15 league appearances. He also had a trial at Rangers, and had a number of other SPL clubs circling until he attracted the attention of Celtic's scouting system.
In January 2011, he got his dream move to the Bhoys – the side he had supported growing up – who invested in a deal which has since risen to around £100,000 to secure the young frontman’s signature.
After a year in Celtic's youth and reserve sides, Watt was soon pushing for a place in the first team and announced himself to a wider Scottish audience in April, 2012.
Making his debut from the substitutes' bench with the game goalless away to Motherwell, the striker scored twice within seven minutes of coming on and Neil Lennon’s side ended up winning convincingly 3-0.
This season he has pushed on to become a regular fixture of the squad, starting some games when Lennon rotates the side ahead of big matches and often being used as an impact substitute, as he did to such devastating effect against Barcelona.
After his famous goal at Parkhead, Watt scored against St Johnstone a few days later to take his tally to eight Celtic goals. He was rewarded for his progress by being handed a new four-year contract lasting until the summer of 2016.
Watt has good physical strength despite his youth, an eye for goal and a hard-working attitude on and off the pitch that should ensure he goes a long way if his development continues at its current pace.
With a wise head on his young shoulders, the years ahead are looking bright for Watt, but so is the immediate future.
Him and his team-mates are trying to secure an historic place in the knockout stages of the Champions League against Benfica on Tuesday night and after their exploits against Barca, it will be unwise to bet against them.
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