x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Hart of a champion

The fact that Paul Hartley will likely lead Celtic, his boyhood idols, into battle against Rangers would have seemed preposterous just a few years ago.

Hartley, right, has blossomed from journeyman into a star performer for Celtic and Scotland.
Hartley, right, has blossomed from journeyman into a star performer for Celtic and Scotland.

At some point, the light and dark greys necessarily make way for blacks and whites. At some point, somebody decides who is in and who is out. And, while logic would dictate that this assessment be reviewable, more often than not it's not so simple. Verdicts stick to you like indelible paint. Paul Hartley knows all about this. The fact that he will likely lead Celtic, his boyhood idols, into battle against Rangers would have seemed preposterous just a few years ago. Because at some point in his career Hartley made the transition from "might be" to "never will". True, Millwall did spend £400,000 (Dh2.2m) to acquire his services back in 1996, a hefty sum for a boy still shy of his 20th birthday. Evidence that there were some tools for him to work with. But those tools seemed lost, or at least misplaced, as he journeyed on through his career through spells at Raith Rovers, Greenock Morton, St Johnstone and Hibernian - all but the latter in the Scottish lower divisions.

The change can be pinpointed to the summer of 2003, when St Johnstone released him on a free transfer and he ended up at Hearts, under Craig Levein. A few successful campaigns, the first of his Scotland caps and then the move to Celtic, as a lynchpin in Gordon Strachan's title-winning side. Yet the question remains. Is Hartley a classic late bloomer who simply woke up at the age of 26 and decided to raise his game? Or did he somehow fall through the cracks, was the assessment of so-called "experts" - scouts and managers - simply incorrect all along? "I don't think I'm necessarily a better player now than I was seven years ago," Hartley, who is now 32, said. "I'm more experienced, of course, and I've learned a lot. But it's still me." If he is right, there are serious questions to be asked. At 26, footballers are fully formed. While it is true that in Hartley's case, his improvement coincided with a change in position - from wide man to a more central role - surely that alone can not explain the transformation into a guy who could twice hold mighty France at bay in qualifying for Euro 2008. More likely the system failed and Hartley simply fell through the cracks. Or maybe there is another explanation. Perhaps the gap between great players and average ones is nowhere near as large as we are led to believe. Perhaps there is very little separating the guys who toil honestly in mid to lower table sides and the millionaires above them who feature in the Champions' League. Perhaps the difference - at least for some players - lies in having better teammates, better coaches and simply being forced to play to a higher level. Today could turn out to be crucial for Hartley and his teammates.

A win over Rangers would give them a mammoth seven-point lead at the top of the SPL. A defeat would effectively reopen the title race. And to think that just six years ago he seemed to destined to a career in the relative obscurity of the Scottish First Division. Much like his namesake, Paul Cezanne, Hartley is doing much of his better work towards the tail end of his productive life. Whatever the case, Hartley is living the dream, part lottery winner, part grafter made good. gmarcotti@thenational.ae