From the high of making his Celtic debut to scoring the winning goal against Barcelona and then having to go out on loan to get a game, Celtic striker Tony Watt speaks exclusively to Andy Muirhead.
As a kid growing up in Coatbridge, Watt dreamed of pulling on the green and white hoops of Celtic. His dream was to play against city rivals Rangers and against Europe’s elite clubs in the Champions League.
Airdrie gave him his chance and Watt will forever be grateful, but there was something missing when he was at the Excelsior stadium.
Watt said: “I was a young boy playing with older people at Airdrie and it was as if I was playing with the group, but I was always out of the picture. I was always the young man, they would go out at night and I would have to go home. Which wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really in in if you know what I mean.
“The boys were all good with me, but I was a totally different age. I was only 16 at the time.”
His performances for then Jimmy Boyle’s Airdrie United side, saw several clubs circling the young striker including Rangers, Liverpool and Fulham. But when Celtic became interested in signing him it was an easy decision to make for the Coatbridge lad.
A fee of £80,000 from Celtic saw Watt fulfil his boyhood dream, on his move to Celtic Watt commented: “That was the one [move]I was looking for, the move to a team that I support, I was buzzing when I found out about it. Whenever you walk around the streets of Coatbridge, that’s what you wanted whatever age you were.
“You wanted to play for Celtic, you dream of playing for Celtic in the league, in Old Firm games and in the Champions League. You used to watch the games when you were a wee guy and you used to buzz off it.”
He added: “It [Celtic] was the first one that came to me, but it was the only one I was really caring about.”
Life at Celtic was different to that of Airdrie, it may have been culture shock for other players, but for Watt as a Celtic fan he knew what was expected of him.
He said: “No I knew [what was to be expected], it was different at Airdrie because it’s all older guys but at Celtic, it was more of a school, it was more ‘you have to do this’, or ‘you have to do that’ which isn’t a bad thing it’s about discipline.
“I learnt two sides of the game. When I was with Airdrie, I wasn’t much of a footballer like I like to think I am now, like my skills and seeing things. At Airdrie, I was stronger, it made me stronger, more powerful. You had to or else you’d get eaten alive.There was no time for, no time for feeling sorry for yourself.”
It was over a year before the striker would make his debut for the Celtic first team and he certainly hit the ground running. With Celtic struggling to find a way through the Motherwell defensive line in a league game in April 2012, manager Neil Lennon signalled for the youngster’s introduction on the hour mark.
Watt explained: “Going on to the pitch, I turned around and looked at the stand, I was kind of ready to pinch myself thinking surely this isn’t happening. It was as if I was ticking one of my dreams off. One of my goals in life was getting ticked off and I couldn’t believe it.
“I’ve just made my debut for Celtic, this couldn’t go any better and then I think it did, I think it went a bit better.”
The 20-year-old was right his debut did get a ‘bit better’, within seven minutes of coming on Watt had bagged two goals as Celtic eventually ran out 3-0 winners at Fir Park.
Watt had hit the headlines with his dream debut, his family and friends were proud of him and despite his two goals the striker was back on the bench a week later in what would become the last Old Firm derby match.
Celtic would comfortably secure a 3-0 win over Ally McCoist’s side, but for Watt he had to settle for a brief appearance in the 89th minute replacing second half goalscorer Gary Hooper.
Watt made a total of three appearances that season, but it was season 2012-13 that would become the greatest of the striker’s young career to date.
The striker made his first start for Celtic in August 2012 against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, scoring twice in Celtic’s 4-2 win. He would go on to make 23 appearances and scoring five times domestically for the eventual league champions, picking up a winner’s medal on the way. But it was in Europe that his season would be defined by.
After Celtic dispatched Helsingborgs IF in the qualifiers to progress to the Champions League group stages, Watt faced the prospect of playing against the likes of Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
And his first game in the group stages proper couldn’t get any bigger as he came on as a second half substitute against Barcelona, scoring the goal that would secure a 2-1 win over arguably the greatest club side at the time.
Speaking about that moment, Watt commented: “I was buzzing to be on the bench and when I scored, I couldn’t believe it. We were still trying to keep a lead, I know we were two goals up [at that stage]but [there was]still a chance for them to come back, we were kind of scared. You had no time to be buzzing, but when the final whistle went, it was probably the happiest moment of my life.
“It was arguably the best moment of my life and probably the best moment that will ever come in my life and for me, I just want to do more. But I don’t know if I will because, at the end of the day, that’s probably the highest thing I could have done, I scored against the best team in the world, they were getting touted for best team ever, it was a dream come true.
“Even playing in the Champions league for Celtic, never mind scoring, it’s the thing you aspire to do most.”
The Barcelona victory reverberated worldwide and the picture of Watt wheeling away was published in many top newspapers, but while the Celtic fans could saviour that victory, the players including Watt had to focus on the next game.
Watt added: “You had no time to buzz about it, you were back in training two days later and I think we were playing St Johnstone at the weekend after that.”
In the aftermath of the Barcelona win, Watt signed a new deal a week after the game and he would play in a further two Champions League games against Benfica and in the last 16 of the competition against Italian giants Juventus.
But there was disappointment in store for Watt in the aftermath of the Barcelona game, as his chances in the first team were few and far. Making just 15 appearances in all competitions, mainly as a substitute, scoring just once.
Watt, still clearly disappointed at the lack of game time, said: “It was weird, after the Barcelona game, I never really got any games if you come to count it. Before, I was playing a lot and then after I never got a lot of games. I think I [made]five starts after it in the next seven or eight months. It was weird. People [were]saying that he hasn’t scored a goal since the Barca game, but I’ve not really played much.
“I made a lot of sub appearances, but it was starts that I was looking for and I didn’t make a lot of them, I don’t know why but that’s just life I suppose. Some people do, some people don’t, you’ve just got to take it on the chin.”
With Watt looking to secure further starts with the news that striker Gary Hooper had been sold to Norwich City, he could only watch on disappointingly as Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki were signed over the close season, pushing him down the pecking order further when he felt he could have filled that void left by the Englishman.
Watt explained: Yeah, I wanted to be. I wanted to be the number one striker, I wanted to prove myself to do that but I had to go, I had to play somewhere else because I wasn’t going to get a game, I knew I was going to struggle to get game time.
“I didn’t want to sit in a stand all season so I chose to go out on loan and the best option was Belgium.”
He made three appearances for Celtic, before heading out on loan to Belgian side Lierse. But his time with the Belgian outfit was overshadowed by newspaper reports and his bust-ups with coach Stanley Menzo.
Asked about his ‘relationship’ with Menzo, Watt said: “To be fair, I don’t really want to talk about him now. He means nothing to me now. He is an ex-manager and that’s all he’ll ever be. I’ll never play in another team managed by him, I’ll never put up with him again.
“He came out and said a lot of times that I did this and that wrong but I was always scoring, and I always scored goals for him. Some would say that I helped him out but it was his choice.
“Everything I came out and said in the press was gospel truth, it was all true. I’m not going to say anything bad about him. I’m not going to come out and badmouth him because it would be childish of me, I feel as if I’m better than that, I’m not going to come out and slaughter a guy. I know he gave me a hard time, but that’s it. It’s finished now.”
Watt’s time at Lierse wasn’t all bad, as he praised his team mates, he continued: “They were all good with me, they all helped. The boys were all good, they had a few meetings asking the assistant coach to play me, give me a chance and if it wasn’t for some of them then maybe I would have lost the head and maybe I’d have tried to get home early, but they helped keep my feet on the ground and keep my head in the right place.
“Some say that football’s easy and a jolly but it’s not, it can physically drain you, mentally drain you as well. Nobody takes [that]into consideration, you just have to perform every week no matter what.”