Anthony Stokes: 'It's been a while, but I really want to play for my country'
Anthony Stokes has turned his career around and set his sights on Ireland, says Peter Geoghegan
Back in December 2007, when Anthony Stokes was playing for Sunderland, the callow striker's fondness for The Glass Spider -- a popular Mackem night spot -- irked Roy Keane. "Anthony could be a top player or he could be playing non-League in five years," Keane railed. Three years on, a rejuvenated Stokes' football future looks far more secure.
Now 22, Stokes is flourishing in the green and white hoops of Celtic. A typically adroit finish against Aberdeen in midweek provided his eighth goal in six games, taking the Dubliner's tally for the season to 17 in all competitions. Such impressive form has not impressed Giovanni Trapattoni, who named the Celtic hit man in the 29-man squad for Ireland's Carling Nations Cup opener against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night, but then left him off the revised squad.
Stokes has so far struggled to break into the Ireland set-up under the Italian's regime, much to the striker's frustration. "It's been a while since I've been picked, but I still really want to play for my country," the tall, athletic former Terenure College student says.
Stokes, who won his three international caps to date during Steve Staunton's ill-fated tenure, has not featured in an Ireland shirt since 2007. "I was in a lot of the squads when [Trapattoni] came in. Even when I wasn't playing for Sunderland at the time, I was there or thereabouts. But a lot of the time when I was in the squad, other players would be drafted in who were on standby and they would play ahead of me."
Speaking from Celtic's labyrinthine Lennoxtown training complex at the foothills of the bucolic Campsie hills, a half an hour's drive and a world away from the bustle of Glasgow city centre, Stokes is relaxed about his international prospects but would clearly relish a run in the Ireland team: "I don't know what the situation is to be honest, but if I get the chance I want to take it. Until then, all I can do is concentrate on my form for my club."
Concentration has never been Stokes' strongest suit -- while his senior career got off to a blistering start when he scored 14 goals in 16 games on loan at Falkirk from Arsenal, his subsequent spell at Sunderland was marked by inconsistency. But the striker has settled well into life at Celtic Park, following his £1.2 million move from SPL rivals Hibernian in August. "I hit a spot a few months back where I was struggling to get into the team, but now that I've got myself back in and back scoring goals, everything is looking up."
His almost telepathic relationship with another summer arrival, target man Gary Hooper, has been a revelation at Celtic Park this season, taking the Hoops to the top of the SPL and Stokes to third in the scorers' chart (behind ex-Rangers man Kenny Miller and another young Dubliner, Conor Sammon, who left Kilmarnock for Wigan Athletic on deadline day last week).
With Stokes now displaying all the confidence and verve of a top player, it is easy to forget how close the striker came to fulfilling the other, doom-laden, half of Roy Keane's prophecy. Barely 18 months ago, the rangy Dubliner seemed more likely to figure in a kick and run contest in the Conference than a senior international at the Aviva. Languishing in Sunderland's reserves following a couple of uninspired loan moves to the Championship, Stokes was drifting, struggling to re-ignite the promise that saw him break into Arsenal's reserves at just 15, having joined the Gunners from Shelbourne.
Stokes sees the move to Hibernian, which reunited him with former Falkirk boss John Hughes, as a pivotal moment in his career. He absorbed a huge cut in wages to join the Easter Road outfit in 2009. "I knew going to Hibs that I had to start my career over again because things had gone badly towards the end of my time at Sunderland. Going to Hibs, I just wanted to get focused on my football and back playing every week. That was the main thing. I wasn't thinking of where I was going."
Celtic coveted Stokes back at the start of 2007. He chose to go to Sunderland instead -- "the Keane thing was a big factor" -- but when Hoops manager Neil Lennon came knocking at the start of this season the decision was a no-brainer: "As soon as I knew they were interested I wanted to come. It was as simple as that."
If leaving Hibs for Celtic was easy, swapping life in genteel Edinburgh for the goldfish bowl that is Glasgow has been somewhat less straightforward. Unlike most of his team-mates, Stokes does not live in the so-called City of Love, commuting instead from his home on the western edge of Edinburgh -- although even there the tensions that swirl around Scottish football, and the Old Firm in particular, are hard to avoid.
Back in October, a mob of around 15 Rangers supporters surrounded Stokes' house after an Old Firm game. The Celt was not in but his parents, John and Joan, were trapped inside while the gang sang sectarian songs, shouted threats and threw a wheelie bin at his living room window.
Keen to play down the incident, Stokes insists that he has had no problems since: "That was just a one-off thing. It was just after the first Rangers game I played in. A few people came around to the house but that was it really. Since then I've had no bother whatsoever."
It is difficult to imagine such a sanguine reaction from the friendly, insouciant Anthony Stokes I first met in Edinburgh 12 months ago. Now he cuts an altogether more circumspect character. Where once he sat on the edge of a table chatting garrulously, now he sits bolt upright, arms folded across his chest for the entire interview. While he still speaks freely, his responses are more guarded than they once were.
It is difficult to gauge whether Stokes has genuinely matured or if the media training at Celtic Park is simply that bit keener. However, the striker's ability to grab the wrong headlines has not completely left the building, as an ill-advised taxi ride after the Celtic Christmas party proved.
"We were down in London for our Christmas team night out," Stokes explains. "I hadn't been feeling well for about two weeks before that. We had a good day or two on it and there was another day to come. I just couldn't take any more so I decided to come home."
The only problem was that Britain was in the grip of the coldest spell in 30 years. With all flights and trains north cancelled, Stokes decided to get a cab home, a 374-mile journey that set him back £600 and sent Scottish red top journalists caterwauling. "There were probably a few too many drinks had," Stokes laughs. "Not the best idea I've ever had, but I was delighted to get back to my bed."
Thankfully for Celtic, and for Stokes, this season his performances on the pitch have received far more attention than any off-field antics. The Bhoys are proving remarkably buoyant in Lennon's first full season in charge. Five points clear of arch-rivals Rangers at the summit of the SPL and in the League Cup final, they are unbeaten in 13 games going into today's Scottish Cup Old Firm clash.
While a Cup victory would be welcomed, Celtic's season will be regarded as a failure unless they regain the league title from an impecunious Rangers who, despite their dire financial straits, could still overhaul the Hoops. For Stokes a few more goals and a first piece of silverware would round off a satisfying debut season.
Growing up in Templeogue, there was only one team in the Stokes household. "I never really supported a team in the Premiership. It has always been Celtic. All my family and most of my friends are fans," he says.
No prizes for guessing his footballing hero. "Larsson," he exclaims without a moment's hesitation.
"I liked Arsenal because of Bergkamp, but Celtic were my main club and it has to be (Henrik) Larsson. When you're that age, to see someone scoring so many goals, they're always going to be your idol.'
Having turned his own career around, perhaps Stokes might one day emulate the Celtic Park legend? "If I can do half, even a tenth, of what Larsson did, I'll be doing alright"
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