Hearts offer Tony Watt platform to change public opinion

Tony Watt hopes to play in Hearts league season opener when former club Celtic visit Gorgie. Pic: SNS
Tony Watt hopes to play in Hearts league season opener when former club Celtic visit Gorgie. Pic: SNS
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While waiting for Tony Watt to arrive for interview, there is a temptation to expect some kind of lawless wild child to walk through the door and bristle at every question asked of him. Hearts’ new striker has, after all, been cast as a minor hell-raiser with an attitude problem in the early years of what has thus far been something of a nomadic football career.

The notion goes that the Tynecastle side have only been able to land a player of such talent and pedigree because he is viewed, even at the tender age of 22, as damaged goods. Watt is well aware of how he is perceived, particularly in Scotland, where he hasn’t kicked a ball at club level since starting for Neil Lennon’s Celtic in a 2-2 draw at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in August 2013. In conversation, however, there is little evidence that, in signing him on a season-long loan from Charlton Athletic, Hearts have brought trouble to their door.

Watt acknowledges that 
his career hasn’t always been plain sailing, but the 
Coatbridge boy scoffs at the 
notion that he has wasted his talent so far. Having, by the age of 22, scored 30 goals in over 100 appearances for relatively big clubs in Scotland, England and Belgium, while also gaining full international recognition with Scotland as recently as four months ago, he has a case.

“I feel I’m in a blessed 
position, that I was born talented and I am using that the best I can,” he said. “I have had a bit of bad luck here and there but I still feel I have done so much in my career over the last four years and I know it is just starting. That’s why I came to Hearts because I know that if I get a clean break, do well from the start and work hard and kick on again, I know where I can go. I know what I can do. I just want to work hard and make sure people start talking differently about me.”

Watt knows the only way to truly get the critics off his back is to steer clear of negative publicity and ensure he is a success at Tynecastle in the upcoming campaign. However, while acknowledging that the public haven’t yet seen “the real Tony Watt”, he offers a reasonably sound explanation for why he has been unable to generate any sustained momentum since cutting ties with Celtic – the club at which he came through the ranks and made his name – two years ago.

“At Standard Liege [Watt’s first club after leaving Celtic permanently], I didn’t have a lot of chances – I only started four games,” he said. “I then went to Charlton and did well but they wanted to loan me out, I don’t know the reason behind it. I went to Cardiff on loan and they were desperate to sign me but they couldn’t because there was a transfer embargo. Then I went to Blackburn on loan and after a few games, I injured my groin.

“For the last year I have been doing well whenever I played. Every time I go to a club I do well. Liege was probably the only place I never got a fair crack at it. Even at Celtic, if you look at my starts to goals, I did well. I’m not trying to sell myself but I started 13 games and I ended up with eight goals and a few assists. That’s no coincidence.”

After showing fleeting glimpses of his quality last season and earning a maiden Scotland call-up in March, Watt is hopeful that returning to his homeland can help ignite a career that promised so much when he scored a Champions League winner for Celtic against 
Barcelona as an 18-year-old.

“I am coming back to show the real me and hopefully I can do that now that I’m closer to home,” he said. “I wanted to come back and play my football close to home, I’ve not made that a secret. I wanted to be near my family so I can have a support base and people around me instead of being in London myself, with family coming up and down.

“I don’t think being away from home is why my career has been stop-start. It’s just hit me in the last four or five months, because of everything that’s gone on, and because of injuring my groin, that I want to be closer to home.

“All I want to do is enjoy my football. I haven’t enjoyed it week in, week out for a wee while and I just want to get back to doing that and kick on this season. That’s why I’ve come back closer to home. The manager’s sold the team to me – he told me his vision for the club and I liked it. I could have gone to another club in England, but it just wasn’t for me. I just felt, for a fresh start, and to revitalise myself I needed to come back home.”

Watt has had enough false dawns in his career thus far to know not to make any grand boasts about what he will do in a Hearts jersey. “I don’t set myself targets,” he said. “There’s no point. I’ve had people in my ear saying I’ve got a big future in the game if I do this and that. But just now, it’s just a case of me working hard. There’s no use me saying things in pre-season because, for all we know, I could go and score zero goals in ten months or I could score 30 goals in ten months. Who knows? I’ve been out for three months with a bad groin and had an operation, but that’s me back and hopefully I’ll be ready to kick on from the start of the season. I have no doubts it will come good and that I’ll do alright.”

Watt was at Tynecastle as his new colleagues were loudly booed off by their own supporters following the Europa League humbling at the hands of Maltese side Birkirkara. He was unfazed by what he witnessed last Thursday and insists he can handle the level of expectation that comes with playing for one of Scotland’s most prominent clubs. “I don’t mind expectation,” he said. “I’ve played in front of big crowds before so the demands of fans doesn’t bother me. I hear it’s a sellout all the time at Tynecastle – that’s a good thing because it makes you thrive. It was the same down at Charlton – it’s a big club, just like Cardiff and Blackburn. These clubs expect you to do well, and I feel I did well whenever I played for them.”

Watt is adamant that the defeat to Birkirkara is not an accurate reflection of the Hearts squad he has joined and is confident he has joined a team equipped for success this season. “It was disappointing but it was a freak game,” he said. “I’ve seen the quality here and it’s a good squad. What happened on Thursday doesn’t bother me because I know the boys will be good. It’s a young squad so the boys will learn from what happened on Thursday. They were expected to win and they got beat, so it’ll be a shock to their system. Obviously there’s not many positives to take from it, but in five or ten years’ time, the boys will look back on it and think ‘that was a low point but I learnt from it’. It’ll make everybody stronger.”

Watt is in line to make his competitive debut for Hearts against his former club a week on Sunday. “I’ll need a few games in me before people see the best of me,” he said. “It’ll be up to the gaffer whether he thinks I’m ready for the Celtic game but I’ll work hard to be fit. Obviously everybody knows my connection with them, so it’s a good game to start with.”