Stokes' destiny in his own hands
THIS Sunday, at the appropriately named Easter Road, Robbie Keane will encounter an individual with the capability to become his long-term successor as Ireland's leading striker.
With Anthony Stokes, however, there is always a question mark. It's never that straightforward.
Sure, he is blessed with natural ability, and therefore rich in the wonderfully vague sporting commodity named potential. The problem, however, is a reputation that lingers which is nothing to do with football prowess.
By his own admission, the step back to join Hibernian last summer was a product of his own misadventure. When the Dubliner broke into the English top flight with Sunderland, he was expected to stay there. Instead, he spent a brief time on the carousel before travelling on out again. His departure barely warranted mention. Another day, another kid who failed to live up to the hype.
The opportunity passed him by, with his enigmatic tendencies best summed up in a single sentence by Roy Keane, a man who knows a thing or two about idiosyncrasies. "He could be a top player," mused Keane, "or he could be playing non-league in five years' time."
It would be dangerous, of course, to make definitive pronouncements about the future of Stokes. He is only 21 years of age, although he has generated enough column inches and moved around enough between clubs to leave the assumption that he is older.
The aberrations need to be framed in that context; the lack of punctuality, the proximity to trouble in nightclubs, growing pains in an unforgiving environment where persistent apologies ring hollow.
There will be always be a stigma attached to Stokes unless he knuckles down to shed that tag and earn a second shot at the big time. The tales of his teenage days have been told many times. A prodigious youth who haunted defences around Dublin and brought many an admirer to the front door. Arsenal won the race and greatness was predicted.
Alas, the production line at Arsenal was too crowded so it was in Scotland, on loan with Falkirk, where he made his mark. A record of 16 goals in 18 games turned heads, but failed to sway Arsene Wenger, who decided to cash in.
In his reserve games with the Londoners, Stokes was often dispatched to a wide role, when his supporters insisted he was better deployed playing off the shoulder of the last defender, a debate which followed him through to Sunderland after their £2m offer and an attractive wage packet was enough to head Celtic and Charlton off at the pass.
Sadly, the principal reason for his downfall at the Stadium of Light was more to do with his location off the park rather than on it.
His struggles to make the bus for a game in Barnsley on time, and a fondness for a nightspot named The Glass Spider, were just some of the flashpoints in his difficult relationship with Keane, while failing to show for U-21 duty earned the wrath of Don Givens.
Unproductive loan periods at Sheffield United and Crystal Palace did little for his standing and Sunderland were content to cut their losses last summer. It was John Hughes, his ex-boss at Falkirk who now manages Hibernian, who was prepared to take a punt.
The switch has proved a resounding success. Wednesday's consolation goal against Dundee United was his 20th in all competitions this season. In truth, the only setback was in September when, regrettably, he found himself in the middle of another nightclub scrap in Edinburgh. Hughes went public on the extent to which he felt let down.
Still, he forgave and forgot, and reaped the benefits. Scoring regularly in England proved beyond Stokes, but it's been no problem north of the border. Earlier this week, Hughes hinted that his all-round game lacked the quality to enforce on a higher plain.
The underlying message was that the young star earned to deliver the champagne moment without putting in the necessary graft outside the area. "His hold-up play and his link-up play has to be better, and he could still work harder," said Hughes. "But when you speak to him, he talks about wanting to play on shoulders and only wanting to go one way. Great, he wants to try and score a goal, but I just want a wee bit more."
An encounter with Robbie Keane this weekend is timely for Stokes. Ireland's record goalscorer is approaching the latter end of his career and, no matter what spin you put on it, his stint in Glasgow is no more than a brief holiday away from the real action.
Stokes is clearly rated by Giovanni Trapattoni who, influenced by the words of Liam Brady, extended call-ups to the senior fold when he was in the dog house with Givens. Nevertheless, he was left out of the squad for the recent friendly with Brazil until Keane's on-off injury saga. Despite his brilliance in the Hibs shirt, he lies behind Championship duo Shane Long and Leon Best in the understudy pecking order.
Long and Best are different animals, though, strong types who are more likely to provide an alternative for Kevin Doyle rather than Keane. Stokes, on the other hand, possesses that unpredictability that can frustrate his own followers on a bad day, and torment opposition defenders on a good one.
Certainly, he has plenty of the attributes to succeed at the highest level, but does he have the desire? The length of his second stay in Scotland will provide the answer.
Hibernian v Celtic
Tomorrow, Sky Sports 3, 1.15