Forgotten man Anthony Stokes faces long road back to salvation
WHEN Giovanni Trapattoni rested Robbie Keane and still named six strikers in his Ireland squad for next month's friendly against Poland, it was hard to think of anyone he could possibly have overlooked.
Stokes has not been named in an Ireland squad since withdrawing from the 2011 Nations Cup panel, citing tiredness. Trapattoni was not impressed and has not been interested since.
The Dubliner made his return to first-team club action in Celtic's 4-0 win over Dundee United on Tuesday night after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury, which he suffered in a pre-season clash against Real Madrid last August.
In his absence, Celtic have made waves in Europe by reaching the last 16 of the Champions League and are running away with the SPL.
Celtic strike partner Gary Hooper has attracted bids from the Premier League and, despite manager Neil Lennon's protestations, he has yet to extend his contract and could depart before the end of the January transfer window.
Victor Wanyama and Georgios Samaras are also attracting interest from teams in the top half of the Premier League. Such is the exposure that comes with Champions League success.
If Hooper leaves, the opening will be there for Stokes to stake a claim for a starting spot for the upcoming tie against Juventus. If he doesn't, one wonders if the former Arsenal and Sunderland striker will get a look-in considering Hooper and Samaras' form this season.
Stokes is out of contract at the end of the season, but, despite his 26 goals in 64 games with the Hoops since signing from Hibernian in 2010, he has not been attracting much attention.
Missing the Champions League run has hindered his prospects, while his off-field activities have caused a stir during his absence – he received a warning from Lennon before Christmas.
His return on Tuesday was painted in the Scottish media as an attempt to "revive" his Celtic career. Lennon was back to talking about the 24-year-old's football on Tuesday night, welcoming his return to the fold.
"He played an hour (for the reserves) on Monday night and we were fortunate – at 3-0 up with 10 minutes to go – we were able to give him a taste for it," Lennon said.
"He is a good player, an important player for us over the last couple of years, and it is really good to see him back.
"He has missed out on some big nights, we want to get him up to speed. His return is very welcome for us."
Speaking before his comeback, Stokes acknowledged that he would have to apply himself to regain his first-team spot, saying: "There are two or three new faces, so I am hoping that brings out the best in me. There is a lot of competition for places.
"Obviously, I want to have some sort of input in that and play as much as possible. I want to get back in the team and score goals. You want to contribute as much as you can to the team, but I need to get as much match fitness and sharpness as I can."
At 24, Stokes should be looking forward to the most exciting six months of his career, with big games in Europe, for Ireland and an expiring contract as he enters his prime.
Instead, he is again battling off-field stories and engaged in a fight to prove his worth at club level.
International honours seem a long way away. Salvation must come in baby steps and the Dubliner will be hoping that Tuesday's return to Celtic Park and the first team was the first of those.