Reluctant goalie Conor Hazard making big progress at Celtic
CONOR Hazard never wanted to be a goalkeeper. Not in soccer, not in Gaelic football.
Yet his talent between the sticks has taken the Downpatrick teenager into Celtic's Champions League squad and earned him a new four-year deal with the Scottish champions.
The 19-year-old played Gaelic football with Saul GFC but laughed when asked if he'd been a 'keeper in his GAA days, replying: "No, I didn't do nets, I wouldn't have time for that in Gaelic!
"I loved playing midfield or in the half-forward line, the running about and catching balls."
A left-sided outfield player in soccer, chance turned Conor into a goalkeeper, as he recalled in an interview for Celtic's website, saying:
"I'm a goalkeeper, but I've not always played there. I changed in 2012. I had been playing left midfield, and we were playing in the Foyle Cup.
"The goalkeeper got injured so I stepped in, saved a penalty and it all started from there. I played Gaelic when I was back in Ireland, so it was natural for me to use my hands, so the manager just put me in."
Indeed he gives great credit to his Gaelic background for improving him as a goalkeeper, telling The Irish News: "I played with Saul back home, I was very into Gaelic, I was sad to give it up.
"It was a tough decision growing up, whether to go for football or go for Gaelic. Believe me, it was a very, very close decision.
"I only got home for a week this summer and then straight back over [to Glasgow] for pre-season. Down were good this year, played very well in some of their games.
"But I'm glad I picked football because I wouldn't be where I am now, but Gaelic helped be along the way as well. It helps me coming out for crosses, I'm used to that in Gaelic, playing half-forward line or midfield.
"I miss it very much, I struggle to watch the games now because I still want to play."
Having said that, he's obviously delighted with how his life and career are going at Celtic, commenting about his new contract, signed alongside Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell:
"It feels amazing and it's a great honour for me. It's a boyhood dream come true and it still has to sink in."
His parents, Pauline and Gary, were in Glasgow to witness the contract signing, along with Conor's younger brother Jack, who has deigned to keep goals in GAA – his late penalty save for the Down minors helped secure their win over Armagh in this year's Ulster MFC. Jack is on the books of Glenavon FC.
Speaking about the signing, 6'6" Conor told Celtic TV: "It feels unreal and it's special to have my family over to see me signing.
"They have obviously been with me from the beginning. My Mum and Dad drove me everywhere and there has always been that football competition between my brother and I in the back garden."
He pictured himself playing at 'Paradise' as a Celtic fan growing up, as he told The Irish News:
"Yeah, I was a Celtic fan through and through. I used to travel over when I was a young boy with my da, watch a lot of games – it's great to be part of it now."
"Henrik Larsson was the man when I was going over, he was just a brilliant player to watch, wasn't he? He changed games when he wanted to."
Signing for Celtic from Cliftonville three years ago, Irish influences helped him settle in.
First there was former Donegal GAA manager Jim McGuinness, who was a performance consultant and then U20s coach at Celtic before moving to become an assistant coach with Chinese side Beijing Sinobo Guoan earlier this year.
Hazard recalled: "Yeah, I dealt with Jim quite a bit, he's a very good coach, helped me quite a bit when I came over, especially mentally. I have high respect for Jim and was sad to see him go but it's probably better for him at the end of the day."
Then there's current Celtic boss, Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers, of whom Conor says: "The gaffer is really good, develops every player along the way. He has taken the club a couple of levels higher than it was.
"I've a lot of good words for him, no bad words whatsoever. He's helped me along the way, helped me in certain situations, like playing out from the back and stuff like that. He's going to take the club very far."
Indeed Celtic are in the Champions League group stages again this season, their Group B campaign opening tonight at home to Paris Saint-Germain.
Hazard is understandably delighted to be involved in European club football's biggest competition, having been part of the qualification process:
"It's very, very exciting, especially with the teams we drew, Bayern Munich, PSG, and Anderlecht. Those will be great tests for us. Hopefully we can show what we are really made of and will do well against them.
"I just need to keep going the way I'm going and, if I get noticed, take my chance."
Hazard knows he has two very experienced goalkeepers ahead of him in the pecking order at Parkhead, namely Scotland's Craig Gordon and Dutchman Dorus de Vries, but he's happy to learn from them:
"I've been training with the first team this year and it's been a big jump in standard from the development squad level.
"The ball is moved a lot quicker, there's a lot more pressure built on you. Just working with Craig Gordon and Dorus de Vries is developing me really well.
"It's going really well, I played a few games in pre-season, so I'm doing really well – I just need to keep that up, build on it."
He's also hoping to make progress on the international stage, where he's involved with the Northern Ireland U21s. Misfortune cost him his opportunity in their Euro 2019 qualifiers so far, missing out on the opening win in Estonia due to injury, and he's been on the bench since.
However, Conor Hazard is determined to go far, with his sights set on becoming Celtic's number one: "The gaffer has shown he is bringing through young players. It's a great opportunity for us all and it's up to us to take it and prove we can do it".