What’s up with Tony Watt?

Hearts is the latest destination for a player who once seemed to have everything. Will it finally happen for him?

By Heather McKinlay

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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When Watt was an unexpected inclusion in the Scotland squad in, mark mcghee proclaimed that he would like to smack him about and given the chance would have sent the lad off to army boot camp
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Watt’s trademark is to make an instant impact. He achieved it on cue in Liège, winning a decisive penalty within minutes of stepping onto the pitch as a substitute. Just as predictably, the Scot’s flying start faltered

The young striker repeatedly twists and turns by the corner flag, the ball seemingly glued to his feet, hypnotising two defenders, deftly using a team-mate as a decoy. His unexpected Cruyff-style change of direction catches the referee by surprise, forcing the official to hop sideways. Enough is enough: the infuriatingly skilful craftsman is hacked down. Then again. And again. Three wild fouls, two yellow cards for the opposition and a couple of throw-ins later, his team are two minutes and 22 seconds closer to a vital 2-1 win. The chants of the crowd ring out more loudly with every passing second: “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Tony Watt, Watt, Watt.” Then comes the novel addendum in an exaggerated South East London twang, “You wot, you wot, you wot, you wot, you wot?” Now hobbling, but encouraged by his fans, Tony Watt of Charlton Athletic is double-footedly taking on the injury-time clock as well as Nottingham Forest. The only hoops on display are the red and white ones on his socks. The official CAFC clip of Watt v The Clock has become a YouTube hit, watched almost 400,000 times.

The scene described above took place in March 2015, almost 28 months on from that goal; the goal which plucked the lad from Coatbridge-obscurity into the European spotlight; the goal which reduced Rod Stewart to tears; the goal which enthused commentator Ian Crocker to anoint the scorer as an instant legend; the goal which has seemingly become an ever-increasing-burden on the itinerant player’s shoulders. While some of his high school pals may have celebrated their coming of age by swaggering into the offy to buy booze legally for the first time, this precocious 18-year-old danced his way into the headlines: teenage Tony Watt – once again to quote Crocker – “taking his place in Celtic folklore” as Barcelona-giant-slayer.

The question persists: is Tony Watt destined to follow the journeyman’s downhill path of other fledgling Celtic flair players? The list is a lengthy one: Andy Ritchie, Owen Archdeacon, Stevie Fulton, Gerry Creaney, Simon Donnelly, Mark Burchill, Liam Miller. All glimmered with early promise. Most went on to light up grounds for more lowly teams around Scotland and the rest of the UK. None have managed to shine as brightly as Kenny Dalglish or sparkle like Charlie Nicholas and Brian McClair. Other recent prospects such as James Forrest and Dylan McGeouch are already being eclipsed by a new name: 16-year-old Jack Aitchison, the latest to score on his debut.

One by one, they burst onto the Parkhead scene as the next great superstar hope. Like many of those before him, and now another after him, Watt undoubtedly possesses abundant natural talent.

That much was obvious from his two goals within five minutes of first appearing as a Celtic sub in April 2012, having signed a year before from Airdrie for around £100,000. But eight clubs in six years, including three in the second half of last season, might suggest that this former Bhoy’s gift of magic feet comes at a frustrating cost.

The Brothers Grimm once wrote of fairy-tale princesses under a spell to dance all night, wearing out a pair of shoes every time. Whilst no slur is intended on Watt’s masculinity, the resemblance seems more than cursory. On the ball, he is a livewire, a look of passion and determination on his face. Yet there is somehow an air that he is not in control of his own destiny, condemned to perform his magic in one place after another, having to start afresh on each occasion.

In a corner somewhere lies his discarded heap of rainbow-singing football boots: red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue. In the Grimm fable, the king calls for a saviour to solve the riddle of the princesses’ endless dancing, promising fame, fortune and choice of bride to the successful contender. Prince after handsome prince takes up the challenge without success, each meeting the consequence of public beheading. Many of Watt’s mentors and coaches over the past few years, having failed to sort out the enigma of the dancing footballer, have lost their heads, albeit in less dramatic fashion.

One of the first to try and tame Watt’s talent was Dutchman Stanley Menzo. Despite Watt’s explosive entrance onto the Scottish scene, by early 2013 the still-teenage striker found his Celtic opportunities limited.

He showed maturity and commitment in wanting to play regularly by agreeing to a season-long loan for 2013/14 at Lierse S.K. in Belgium, a mid-table team in the top division. He hit the pitch running at his new club, scoring on his debut within a couple of minutes of coming on from the bench. However, while his skill could not be questioned, both his fitness and temperament were. Whether through homesickness, culture clash or a more direct personality clash with team boss Menzo, Watt’s foray into Flanders was tempestuous.

Watching on from Glasgow, Neil Lennon admitted that the teenager should apply himself better to getting into physical condition while simultaneously questioning the need for this to play out in public. He also noted the potential psychological impact of the Barcelona goal. “The first thing I said after the game that night was that I don’t want it to be a millstone around his neck. Because he’s got the talent and has the raw ingredients to be a really good player. He just needs to polish those off. He will be remembered, forever maybe, for that goal, but it doesn’t mean he can’t go on to have a good career.”

Concerns over a cavalier attitude to training have been publicly aired by a succession of coaches and managers since, none more bluntly than Mark McGhee. When Watt was an unexpected inclusion in the Scotland squad in March this year, the assistant manager proclaimed that he would like to smack him about and given the chance would have sent the lad off to army boot camp. Does the young striker need this kind of tough love to bring out his much-vaunted potential? A team-mate in those earlier days at Lierse, Frédéric Frans, felt that Watt would benefit from encouragement of a more positive nature. He told Belgian publication Sport/Voetbal: “He wants to feel loved, then nothing’s too much for him. Sometimes he was a bit casual in the warm-up. Coach Stanley Menzo put a lot of store in that so then there was a big clash. He was only 19 and if you started to shout at him, he blocked it out altogether. He still needs to learn to take criticism. But in the end it is a joint problem. I felt that he was sometimes picked up too much compared with others. As a coach you shouldn’t pick on such a boy for the slightest thing. You’re that much older and need to be more understanding sometimes.”

Towards the end of his loan spell, Watt was demoted to training with the reserves after an outspoken and unauthorised interview in which he accused Menzo of treating him harshly and lying. On returning to Celtic for pre-season training in July 2014, Lennon was gone and his fate lay in a new pair of hands: those of former school teacher Ronnie Deila. The Norwegian made his mind up quickly, berating Watt’s commitment compared to recognised internationals and senior professionals in the squad. Without much ado, the Hoops accepted a bid of just over £1m from Standard Liège and Watt signed until June 2018. The forward was once more packing his bags for Belgium, swapping chips, Mars Bars and Tennent’s Lager for the Low Country’s frites, chocolat and Trappist beer.

In signing for Standard, Watt fell into the clutches of multi-millionaire Belgian businessman Roland Duchâtelet, who had recently undertaken a pan-European spending spree to acquire a network of football clubs: Carl Zeiss Jena in Germany, Újpest in Hungary, Alcorcon in Spain and Charlton Athletic in England. As well as Standard Liège, he also maintained a firm interest in another Belgian club, Sint-Truiden.

Watt’s trademark is to make an instant impact. He achieved it on cue in Liège, winning a decisive penalty within minutes of stepping onto the pitch as a substitute. Just as predictably, the Scot’s flying start faltered. This time Watt seemed to be getting on well with his head coach, Guy Luzon, but Duchâtelet is not a patient man. Standard normally graced the top positions in the table but were struggling in the middle of the Pro League. The Israeli boss was soon packed off. Watt put up a message on social media wishing his brief mentor well, saying he’d learnt more from Luzon in two months than from anyone else in two years which can be taken as a swipe at both Menzo and Lennon. After a couple of goals in 13 appearances, Watt, too, was on the move once more, this time to the bright lights of London – or a rather mundane suburban corner of it at Charlton. The signing on 6 January 2015 was announced as permanent at an undisclosed fee. Duchâtelet, owner of both selling club and buying club, presumably enjoyed negotiating that with himself.

More upheaval followed. Within days of the Scot’s arrival in England, Duchâtelet sacked the manager, the Belgian Bob Peeters. His replacement was a welcome familiar face for Watt: Guy Luzon. Perhaps the Belgian owner had this masterplan in mind all along when he moved Watt across the Channel. Rumours had surfaced a couple of weeks earlier from Israel that Luzon had the Charlton role in his sights, given credibility by the fact he was still under contract within Duchâtelet’s network.

Despite the fans’ cynicism at the appearance of another Liège cast-off – he was the fourth player in that season to take that route into the Charlton squad – Watt’s ability to stick the ball to his brightly-coloured boot, waltz past defenders and shoot into the top corner soon endeared him to the Valley faithful. Perhaps fate was finally conspiring for the magic feet to find a more long-term home? Watt turned in a string of man-of-the-match performances as the Addicks pulled clear of relegation danger. Simmering unrest among fans at the club’s lack of ambition, bizarre management methods and failure to communicate gradually cooled down.

Watt seemed fit and in-form as the 2015/16 season dawned so it came as a surprise to find him missing from the Charlton starting line-up for the first match of the season, against London rivals QPR. Word soon circulated that he’d been dropped to the bench for disciplinary reasons. There was talk of childish behaviour. The punishment had the desired effect: Luzon unleashed him in the second half and he turned his pent-up frustration into tricks and treats with a goal and an assist as the Addicks toppled their recently-relegated neighbours. Watt scored in the opening three matches but as the autumn wore on, his form declined and Charlton also started to struggle.

He fits the theoretical football business model of an asset Duchâtelet can buy cheaply, refine, put in the shop window somewhere within his network and sell on at a profit. However, this approach does not always succeed. Watt may have started his career as a Diamond at Airdrie United but several failed attempts to polish off his rough edges have made him one of the more challenging subjects of this Belgian experiment. He became more and more selfish in possession, head down, rarely looking for a pass or a team-mate, always trying to beat one defender too many and often losing the ball. His body language suggested a slump from cocky arrogance to self-obsession and, in an extraordinarily frank interview with Richard Cawley of the South London Press, his verbal language confirmed it: “I’ve been poor recently and I know I have. Huddersfield was the worst game of my career. If I went right then I should have gone left, if I went left I should have gone right. I got every decision wrong. I was poor in the Rotherham game and against Fulham I was terrible.” Such brutal honesty is rare from any sportsman and concerning when it remains unresolved. “I don’t know what’s up. I can’t put my finger on it and I know I can be so much better. It is killing me and it is killing the gaffer (Luzon). I can tell he is frustrated with how I’m playing because he knows I can be better.”

His own description that when he’s good, he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad, he’s awful, would resonate with fans who have watched Watt over any length of time when he has been playing for their team. It’s the kind of self-awareness you would hope a sports psychologist or life coach would seize upon. Unfortunately, within the echo chamber of Charlton Athletic, his cry for help fell unheeded.

Charlton used to be respected as a model club in the English league: how a stable approach could bring success on modest means under the careful stewardship of a manager such as Alan Curbishley. Ten years on from the end of that reign and two years into the Duchâtelet era, anxiety over the intentions of the Belgian and his experimental network cum player farm approach has ballooned into full Hollywood horror.  Despite initially trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, the vast majority of both Standard Liège and Addicks fans will now unhesitatingly describe Duchâtelet as a brooding, menacing and Grimm character. The fact he possesses a strong physical resemblance to Christopher Walz’s portrayal of Blofeld in the most recent James Bond film has not gone unnoticed.

With Charlton hovering around the relegation zone by early November 2015, Duchâtelet’s axe fell once again on Luzon. Bizarrely, the businessman called upon unknown Karel Fraeye, coach of part-time Belgian third division club VW Hamme, to take over the reins of his multi-million pound English Championship squad. Fraeye was not a complete stranger to the South Londoners – he had been assistant coach for a few months at the end of Duchâtelet’s first season of ownership and he had remained on the businessman’s payroll ever since. Nevertheless, it seemed blindingly obvious to Addicks fans that he lacked the track record and pedigree to salvage the club’s season. He certainly did nothing to resurrect Watt’s form. The lad played just two games under the rookie coach. He was then abruptly booted out on loan to Cardiff. New club, new country, new manager equals new sparkle from the rough diamond. One of his early man-of-the-match performances was away at Bolton, prompting the Trotters’ manager Neil Lennon to spill the beans that Charlton had been touting the Scot to all and sundry, “I could have had Tony Watt – Charlton offered him to us and we couldn’t afford to pay him,” he told The Bolton News. “His wages weren’t massive. And if Tony would have been playing on the other side of the pitch today we would have won the game.”

Back in south east London, debate raged among fans over the enigma of Watt and the folly or otherwise of peddling him to league rivals. “Madness to get rid of him. He can do things with the ball I can only dream of,” said one. “He’s a lazy know-it-all and not a team player,” came the counter attack. “He was really nice when I met him in McDonalds after a match once,” gossiped another, rather revealingly. Watt does not look overweight – indeed, he once ripped off his shirt when playing for Lierse to show-off his toned torso. However, evidence from multiple sources would suggest that he is not a hard trainer and not strict in his adherence to personal nutrition plans and fitness regimes. True, he doesn’t goal hang and shirk, often dropping back into midfield to collect the ball and demonstrating a sharp turn of pace over short distances. But, in the fans’ vernacular, he is usually blowing out of his arse well before half-time. He’s also rather adept at the dying swan act, reacting to a defender’s clatter by hobbling and clutching at one or other of his legs. This can be infuriating for spectators and for team-mates alike. Is it a diversionary tactic to lull the opposition? Is he really struggling from a knock? Or is he simply desperate for a breather?

Under Russell Slade at Cardiff, Watt appeared to find a coach who could bring out his brio with more consistency. He looked set to make a permanent escape from the Charlton and Duchâtelet web, a deal already agreed in principle at around the figure originally paid to Celtic to acquire him for Standard Liège. Then the football gods made a last-ditch tackle: Cardiff were placed under a transfer embargo for breach of Financial Fair Play rules. The deal was off. Watt, reluctantly, returned to The Valley. The club had sunk into greater turmoil. Fraeye had departed ignominiously, having gathered two wins in 14 games. José Riga, Belgian of course, was the latest familiar face in charge. He had been Duchâtelet’s first Charlton appointment, successor to Chris Powell less than two years before. Despite a solid performance in securing the team’s Championship status in that first spell, Riga was not retained by the maverick owner, who preferred to give a younger man the chance – Bob Peeters, the one briefly in the driver’s seat when Watt first boarded the SE7 bus. No wonder fans call it a merry-go-round.

Riga gave Watt a start for the Addicks at home to Blackburn and the forward put on a lively show in a 1-1 draw; enough to remind Rovers’ boss Paul Lambert of his talents, it transpired. No sooner had fellow Scottish forward Jordan Rhodes completed an £11m move to Middlesbrough than Watt headed to the North West, signing on loan at Ewood Park for the rest of the season.  Once again, the prospect of a permanent deal was on the table. Riga, facing serious challenges in rebuilding a demoralised squad, had shown little inclination to take Watt under his wing. While recognising his quality, he questioned his will to commit to Charlton’s cause. Watt’s side of the story is that he already felt that he was being forced out at the time of the loan to Cardiff and that his relationship with the club’s senior management had broken down. He would not be the first to accuse the CEO or owner of broken promises. His form at Blackburn was not mercurial, with two goals in 11 games, but perhaps the itchy feet finally had a chance to settle down, a little closer to home and under watchful eyes. With Lambert as his club manager and Strachan and McGhee showing a keen interest, he was being taken in hand by some of the grandees of the Scottish game. The Scotland manager, with a hint of desperation, even proclaimed that Watt could be Scotland’s Lewandowski or Ibrahimovic.

Then fate once again took a turn for the cursed: a couple of weeks after his 12-minute full international debut, serious injury struck for the first time in Watt’s career. Blackburn packed him back to his contracted club, the relegation madhouse of Charlton Athletic. He found a club now viewed by its own protesting fans, sympathetic opposition fans, concerned past players and managers and the media as a laughing stock / basket-case / soap opera (no need to delete as all are appropriate). Whilst others scrambled for the lifeboats, the Addicks sunk inevitably from the Championship into League One.

Watt played no part; his groin injury required an operation, prematurely ending his season. At 22, he’s not quite in the last chance saloon but he does find himself at a crossroads with a lot to prove. So what’s next? Russell Slade, who clicked with Watt at Cardiff, has picked up the management chalice at The Valley. Perhaps he was looking forward to the striker’s tricks and skills terrorising defenders from the likes of Northampton Town, Fleetwood and Gillingham. But the Charlton hierarchy had their own ideas, not keen to retain an expensive asset on their unhealthy League One balance sheet. A season-long loan deal has been sealed: now his home is where the Hearts are. The young maverick will undoubtedly come under much closer scrutiny back in Scotland, both on and off the pitch. On the other hand, he is back close to family, friends and girlfriend, providing a more stable support network. Meanwhile, having been tried for size by a whole host of managers, the hero’s mantle transfers to Robbie Nielson. Will the Jambos’ boss be the one who finally solves the riddle of the dancing footballer?

Curve-ball time. When Andy Murray first emerged as a young professional, the teenage tennis starlet clearly possessed exceptional skill. He was also prone to public displays of moodiness, self-centred outbursts and physical cramps. Even many years on, having reached the pinnacle of his sport, these traits resurface now and then when things are not going to plan. Murray can’t completely change his character but we are forgiving because he has a string of achievements as testament to realised talent. He continues to work hard and improve. He’s got a weighty monument to his success in the shape of a golden post box in his Dunblane home town. Watt, on the other hand, has a brief film of a Europe-shattering goal, an ephemeral moment, a few fleeting seconds.

It’s easy to think of a footballer as a pawn on the chessboard of the beautiful game, plucked from one squad, plonked down into another. Watt’s career to date has certainly suffered more than most from that. His confidence has surely taken many hits with all the moving about and struggles to settle. At times he has been the victim of lousy circumstance. Having played this year for Duchâtelet’s Charlton, Vincent Tan’s Cardiff and the Venkys’ Blackburn, he’s better placed than most to tell tales about eccentric football owners. Yet on the pitch, he is a proactive player. He usually makes an immediate impact, often scoring on his debut and striking up a rapport with the crowd. His name is ready-made for chanting. You never come away from a game commenting that you didn’t notice Tony Watt. He never hides, he seeks the ball, he hogs the ball, sometimes he does amazing things with the ball. But the big questions remain unanswered. Will he ever do it consistently? Will he ever do it for Scotland, for a national team in dire need of firepower? In a Daily Record poll in March this year, 39% thought he would become a Scotland star – not a majority, but a sizeable chunk still showing belief in his ability.

The man from Coatbridge could do worse than study the dedicated and single-minded road to fame and fortune taken by Dunblane’s local hero. Watt is a talented 22-year-old athlete. By all accounts, he is a likeable person, a bit of a joker at times, quick-witted but also thoughtful and self-critical. He can be prone to mood swings. Andy Murray shares a lot of those traits. His way to channel things positively is to surround himself with trusted advisers – that onus, of course, is entirely on him as an individual sportsperson. Watt practices a team sport but that does not absolve him of personal responsibility. Could he be proactive off the pitch in assessing his own strengths and weaknesses, in seeking advice, maybe even finding his own mentor, be that a personal trainer or a sports psychologist?

Perhaps it’s time that Tony Watt stopped itching for some club manager or coach to sort him out, stopped itching for it all to click into place in the right squad, stopped itching for some spell to be lifted. There really is no valid comparison with the Brothers Grimm and fairy-tales of Dancing Princesses. Perhaps it is time Watt took his fate into his own hands – or into his own magic feet.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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