Hooper enhances England credentials by helping Celtic to famous Champions League victory

Neil Lennon's team won away from home in the competition for the first time since 1986 and the striker will have caught Roy Hodgson's attention after playing a pivotal role
By Oliver Platt

Neil Lennon's position has always been clear. "I have to say I thought Gary Hooper was world class. I thought he was just magnificent and the catalyst for a lot of good things we did."

If his seemingly never-ending supply of goals in the Scottish Premier League was not enough to persuade Roy Hodgson, then perhaps a goal, an assist and a key role in Celtic's first Champions League victory away from home since 1986 would be.

"People keep asking me about him playing for England," Lennon added after the 3-2 victory over Spartak Moscow. "Well, I think he showed how good he is."

It is perhaps a shortcoming of the national psyche that players plying their trade outside of the Premier League have continually been either overlooked by the England coach or treated with suspicion by the fans and media. Many have played in stronger divisions than Hooper currently finds himself in.

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Sven-Goran Eriksson consistently selected Owen Hargreaves but it was not until the World Cup in 2006, a tournament in which he was arguably England's best player, that the nation finally accepted that the midfielder was of the required standard. By that point he had already won the Bundesliga four times with Bayern Munich, as well as the Champions League.

Hooper is closer to home but questions remained over his ability to score regularly at the top level. "He has led the line brilliantly for us this season and I think he is good enough to play for England," Lennon offered after Hooper had scored four goals in one match - against Raith Rovers.

In Moscow, though, the 24-year-old was more seriously tested. Spartak topped the group of teams that finished streets behind Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg last season to qualify for the Champions League.

Centre-back Juan Insaurralde, who was sent off for a desperate trip as Hooper advanced on goal, has been capped by Argentina, as has his defensive partner Nicolas Pareja.

The finish he provided to give Celtic the lead was delicate, gently guiding Mikael Lustig's cross beyond Sergei Pesyakov, and he peeled off of his marker to head Georgios Samaras' fine left-footed delivery home at the back post but was caught offside.

Rarely does he come too deep in search of the ball and laterally he will never be caught wide of either side of the penalty area, but that is not to say he is unable to contribute to Celtic's build-up play. Most notably here, he controlled Charlie Mulgrew's pass in the box before laying the ball off for James Forrest, whose shot eventually rebounded in off defender Dmitri Kombarov.

Hooper wears the No.88 shirt for Celtic and his rise to prominence has been similarly unorthodox. Released by Tottenham at age 14, Hooper eventually found a home in Grays Athletic. He did enough there to earn a move to Southend United, then a Championship club, upon the expiry of his contract and while his spell in Essex ended on the transfer list, he had done enough while on loan at Hereford United in League Two to persuade Scunthorpe United to spend up to £175,000 to secure his services.
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He was prolific there, scoring a total of 50 goals in 95 appearances, but, remarkably, has been even better at Celtic. More will be expected of him if he does receive an opportunity on the international stage yet Hooper is not the complete package at this moment in time.

The former striker and Football League pundit Steve Claridge was accurate when, during Hooper's time with Scunthorpe, he noted in a column for the Guardian that "much of Hooper's game is played at either breakneck speed when he is involved in play or at walking pace when he is not."

Jermain Defoe's recent form has made it difficult to argue for a change in Wayne Rooney's partner in attack but it is equally hard to justify the inclusion of the likes of Daniel Sturridge over Hooper. The reluctance of Hodgson to call-up a striker such as Grant Holt is understandable but Hooper is both younger - and only one year older than Sturridge - and more palatable in terms of style of play.

Ultimately, his best sales pitch is his fearsome and continually inflating goalscoring tally. At every level, from the Isthmian League Premier Division with Grays to the Champions League with Celtic, Hooper has scored goals.

The quality of the defences he has faced has increased but so has the standard of service coming from behind him and the goal remains the same size.

One superb night does not make him an England striker, but with Hodgson's pickings looking increasingly slim in attack, he could do worse than to widen the net in his search.

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