Stokes was walking on very thin ice – Lennon
Boss urges Dubliner to take second chance and become star striker, writes Roddy Forsyth
ANTHONY STOKES came within a crossbar's width of scoring a vital goal for Celtic in the San Siro on Wedensday night – but was within an inch of being dumped by the club only a few months ago, according to Neil Lennon.
The manager had much to say in Stokes' favour after the Dubliner's performance against AC Milan in the Celtic's opening Champions League group game, but he also revealed that the striker – who incurred Lennon's ire when he attended a memorial tribute for a member of the Real IRA who had been shot dead in Dublin – had brought his own future into doubt by his general demeanour around the club.
"I had him in the office a couple of times. It's fair to say Anthony was walking on very thin ice," said Lennon.
"He was hurting himself. It was nothing to do with stuff last year – the stuff in Dublin – it was just his indiscipline around the training ground and around the team. He's really tidied that up now and become a really good professional."
Asked what had caused the penny to drop with Stokes, who spent much of last season sidelined by injury, Lennon said: "I don't know. Maybe the injury and missing out on the whole Champions League campaign last year and watching the boys play against Barcelona and Spartak Moscow and realising what he has at Celtic.
"Sometimes you don't know what you've got until you're not there. I've never spoken to him about it, but I certainly think the natural thing would be to sit down and think, 'I want to be a part of this' and now he is.
"You do sit down with them, but ultimately it's down to the individual. I really like what I'm seeing in him at the moment. He's always had goals in him and he will score goals at Champions League level if we can get the right service to him.
"As a lone striker, you sometimes have to create your own opportunities and he had one in the first half in Milan when he latched on to a mistake and I fancied him to score, but he just scuffed the shot a little bit – and if his free-kick had been an inch or two lower we'd all be raving about him.
"There were things he was doing in the game on Wednesday – challenging for balls in the air – whereas before he was a little bit wishy-washy. I think now that Gary Hooper's gone, he's looking to be the No 1 here and he's enjoying that challenge.
"He should be looking to be the No 1 striker here, to continue scoring goals at domestic and European level and he should want to get in the Irish team.
"Again, he let himself down there. Unfortunately Trapattoni has gone now, but you hope that when a new manager comes in the slate is wiped clean and he can make a charge on that aspect of his game as well."
Celtic, who face St Johnstone at home in the SPL this afternoon, have inevitably been the subject of much analysis and comment, following their 2-0 midweek defeat in Italy.
Lennon, though, has conducted his own initial post-mortem and said: "You have to take the performance in its context. Did the players do what we asked them to do? Yes – apart from scoring, which is the hardest thing to do in a game.
"Did the players listen to what I said? Yes. Did we play well? Yes. There's a lot to take from that. Is this as good as it gets for a Scottish team? Who knows? We were 8/1 to win the game.
No one gave us a prayer and I thought those odds were very, very long. I didn't think there was much between the teams having watched AC Milan on Saturday night and that proved to be the case.
"At times we denigrate the game too much. We have a good team here, it's growing and it will get better. As always when you are on the up you need investment and that's one thing that teams can't guarantee. That's where we are.
"I was asked last year after we played Juventus if the last 16 of the Champions league was a ceiling for Scottish teams. I don't believe that it is – there is always scope to improve and progress whether it be this year, next year or in three or four years' time." (© Daily Telegraph, London)