Tony Watt: Belgium made me a better player
After a year of ups and downs throughout his loan spell in Belgium with Lierse, Tony Watt has returned to Celtic with renewed passion and the feeling he can make a large contribution to the Scottish champions’ future.
It has been a year and a half since the youngster made headlines worldwide after galloping forward and firing past Victor Valdes ten minutes into his Champions League debut, ensuring the Glasgow giants picked up all three points from against European powerhouse Barcelona.
The 20-year-old striker’s career didn’t quite take off from that moment as expected, however. He was never given an extended run in the Celtic team afterwards and was then sent out on loan to the Belgian club last season.
While the Scotland U21 international had an excellent strike rate of eight goals in nine starts (17 appearances overall), his time in the Jupiler Pro League was full of controversy and he was soon dropped from the team by coach Stanley Menzo.
Despite the chaos and negativity, though, Watt feels his time with De Pallieters was a positive one overall and says his year in a more technical league has helped him develop as a player.
“I think Belgium is great and I don’t have a single bad feeling towards the league or the competition,” he told BeNeFoot.net
“I enjoyed playing there, it was very technical and I would say it was a lot harder than the Scottish league, so it was good for me.
“I think the league suited me because they play in behind and in at the feet.”
It’s very rare that a young Scottish player moves abroad to ply their trade, with most of the nation’s products ultimately moving to England to play in the Championship or Premier League, but Watt believes young players should look to the continent for opportunities more often.
“Just now I think there are a few players in Scotland who have a good chance to kick on and be big players but if they do get the chance to go abroad and play then I think they should because it’s a good standard. I enjoyed it and it has been good for me.”
That Belgian football is technically advanced compared to football in Scotland, where he has played in the third tier with Airdrie and the top flight with Celtic, has helped the player develop his all round game.
“The best thing for me is that I’ve seen the lower leagues of Scotland as well as the top league of Scotland and then I went and added another bit to my game with Belgium.
“They all have different styles so hopefully I can adapt my game and bring all three parts together for next season.”
As a clearly talented player with good technique, impressive pace and excellent finishing ability, Watt is seen as one of the brightest talents to emerge in Scotland for some time and he is completely focused on the future. What lies ahead at Celtic Park remains uncertain, but the Coatbridge-born player is hoping to impress new manager Ronny Deila and secure a regular spot in the first-team, however, he hasn’t ruled out a return to Belgium.
“If I just get myself ready for next season then I’ll be ready wherever the challenge lies. Hopefully it’s at Celtic but if not then I’ll need to wait and see.
“I had to go out and get games and I did that so it has helped me as a player.
“I’ll need to speak to the new manager and see what he thinks. If he doesn’t like me and there are good options from Belgium then I would look at them because it’s a nice league and I enjoyed my time and I wouldn’t rule out going back over.”
Towards the end of the season, there were several reports that clubs in Belgium were interested in signing the former Airdrie star and he admits that if he has no future in Glasgow, the likes of KV Oostende, Zulte Waregem and Standard Liege would all be difficult to knock back if they made an offer.
“I heard there was a few teams interested and it was three good teams. Oostende are on the up, they’ve got a good president and a good coach just now; Zulte have got a very good coach in Francky Dury – he has been exceptional in the last few years; and Standard are Standard – they are one of the biggest teams in Belgium.
“But for me it’s Celtic first, that’s where my heart is and I don’t want to give up on my dreams too early.
“I need to go and speak to Deila and see what his ideas are, hopefully he likes me, but if not then I would consider anything on the table from Belgium.
“There has been good interest in me, so I must have been doing something right in the games I played.”
That some of the biggest teams in the country are looking at him is a testament to his talent, especially as his time there was plagued with controversy.
While many can argue that his attitude is proving to be his own downfall, it’s impossible to judge a player’s personality and professionalism by tabloid headlines and incidents taken out of context. However, there is nothing from our interview to suggest he is anything but modest, sensible and amicable. Regardless of your preconceived notions about the boy from Coatbridge, though, it’s clear he simply never had it easy at Lierse.
As soon as he arrived, he was judged by the press to be unfit and rather unprofessional and after just one game was criticised in the media by Menzo, despite scoring on his debut. From then on, things with the former Ajax goalkeeper were never pleasant and the way others in the club treated him has left a sour taste in his mouth.
As a young player moving to a new team in a different country, Watt says he expected more help from the club, who he feels made things unnecessarily difficult for him.
“I settled in quite quickly, if I had played more games from the start then I wouldn’t have been homesick, but when I started playing after the winter break I was enjoying it.
“I got shafted in a way, they kind of screwed me over and after that it was quite hard.
“From the first day, the coach made it hard for me. He kept shouting at me and trying to pick fights and he just didn’t treat me well.
“In the last seven weeks no one spoke to me. It was as if they tried to wipe me out of their memory.
“The first week or two the sport scientists and coaches were putting a lot of effort in to try and get me fit and for the first week or two I thought the guy was alright but then I played the first game he just started slaughtering me.”
Later in the season, Watt was demoted to the reserves, with the club insisting it was because he gave an interview in which he criticised Menzo, but the player revealed his fate had already been sealed, which encouraged him to speak out.
“The reason I did the interview was I was told I wouldn’t play again. There was an interview from Menzo saying I was selfish and an individual, so I went to him and said “What’s that? That’s embarrassing”, and he just slaughtered me he just said “You are, you don’t do anything for the team” and then he said “You’ll never play for us again”.
“I accepted it and just decided that he had slaughtered me in the press, so I wanted to get my side of the story across.”
For Watt, the relationship is not just irreparable, it’s non-existent.
“I don’t have a relationship with him. I never will have. That’s just that. I’ll never work under him again.”
It’s not just the coach who was the problem though, throughout the club there were people who he feels made life difficult for him.
“It was good as a club, but the way the people who run it treated me was a shambles, especially being away from home when I needed someone to help me, but they just booted me into the ground even further.
“It was mostly the players who helped me settle in. [technical director] Tomasz Radzinski was okay for the first month or two but after we got safe he changed completely.
“They were all brilliant until we were safe and then after that it was a case of “see you later, we don’t need you”.
“That’s why I’m so angry, it was as if they didn’t need me.”
There seems to be a lot to the story that Watt simply doesn’t want to talk about. These aren’t the grumblings of an arrogant young boy with a chip on his shoulder, he admits he might not be completely blameless in it all, but his anger isn’t born out of nothing. It’s genuine and in many ways seems justified. Despite the troubles, though, he still looks at Belgium and Lierse in a positive light.
“Some of the people at the club were lovely people, I met some good friends that I’ll always have now and I’ll stay in contact with players and some of the background staff like the kitman, some of the physios and the woman that looks after everyone – they were genuine people.
“The fans were unbelievable. They were amazing. I hold them in very high regard. They’ll always have a place in my heart after what they showed me there.”
He returns to Celtic next season a more mature and experienced player, better equipped for the challenge of breaking into the first-team of the club he loves. In many ways he has been unlucky since that glorious goal against Tito Vilanova’s men, but if his luck picks up again and he maintains that positive attitude, he can go on to fulfil his potential as one of Celtic’s and Scotland’s most brightest players.