Sport Soccer

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Clock ticking for Stokes

Celtic striker must show improvement if he is to fulfil his world-beater potential

BACK in December 2007, then Sunderland manager Roy Keane responded to reports of Anthony Stokes' frequent visits to a prominent nightclub with a prediction.

"He could be a top player," said Keane, "or he could be playing non-league in five years."

With just under 18 months until that deadline, it's safe to say that Stokes will avoid the worst-case scenario. But the Celtic striker is nowhere near the other end of that equation either.

In his days as a prodigious teenager with Shelbourne, when every club from across the water was falling at his feet, the confident south Dublin lad was tipped for greatness. Even people with no more than a passing interest in the schoolboy scene knew the name.

Yet his rise to the senior ranks has taken place with an asterisk attached. Stokes is a social animal who enjoys the good life, a character in an era where there are few. The problem is that one person's character is another's messer.

"Look, he's a wee bit of a rascal," said his current boss, Neil Lennon, in February. "But we've all been there, and I wouldn't take that away from his personality. I quite like that... as long as he keeps working as hard as he's doing."

By May, Lennon was less impressed. After spending the majority of the title run-in on the substitutes' bench, Stokes was reported to be on a final warning after another breach of discipline.

That came in a period where his father, John, hit the headlines twice. Firstly, for producing a banner saying the Queen wasn't welcome to the Stokes' Players Lounge bar in Fairview, a gesture which was always going to have an unfortunate knock-on effect for a Celtic player.

Then, in April, both his parents and an uncle were arrested by Gardai in connection with ammunition that was uncovered in the family pub. All were released from custody without charge.

After that came another blaze of negative publicity, when Marco Tardelli revealed that Stokes had pulled out of the end-of-season internationals because he was "too tired", a story that the player vehemently disputed in a Sunday newspaper interview last weekend.

Tardelli had previously voiced the sentiment that Stokes didn't work hard enough. They spoke of his unavailability as though it confirmed their belief.

While the other no-shows were included in the squad for next month's friendly with Croatia, Stokes missed the cut. Sympathy from the public was in short supply.

Many Celtic fans are unconvinced by the enigmatic performer, who had the potential to be a cult hero after his move from Hibernian last summer. Considering his prolific feats with both Falkirk and Hibs -- in contrast with his erratic performances in England -- the Old Firm platform offered Stokes the opportunity to become a dominant player in Scotland.

Sure, he had previous with Celtic; after his loan stint with Falkirk in 2006 made him hot property, and Arsene Wenger decided that he ultimately wasn't good enough for Arsenal, an auction ensued. The Hoops were in pole position until Sunderland intervened. The Black Cats offered a bigger wage, and Stokes took it.

Still, that would have been forgiven if the new signing had shone in his first year at Parkhead. A haul of 14 goals seems respectable, yet the reality is that he was ineffective or just not selected for the Old Firm games.

Instead, 23-year-old Gary Hooper, a capture from Scunthorpe, raced to the top of the supporters' affections. The feeling is that the Essex lad can be trusted to deliver on the big occasion. With Stokes, the perpetual question mark lingers.

He has given plenty of interviews in his short career, either insisting that he has learned from his mistakes or claiming that he is simply misunderstood. When Keane publicly criticised Stokes' mentality at Sunderland, the player stressed that the incident was a "wake-up call". Almost four years on, it appears that the alarm is still malfunctioning.

Friends of the player have indicated there was more to his decision to skip the Irish gathering than tiredness.

In breaking his silence, Stokes backed up that story by saying there were "one or two other things" going on, with the fall-out from his family's well-documented troubles believed to be a factor.

"I never got the chance to speak to Trapattoni," he said. "It went through the club, which was standard contact. They spoke to the FAI and discussed the situation. I've no idea where the 'too tired' phrase came from. It certainly wasn't me."

It wasn't the first time that Stokes had communication difficulties with the Irish set-up; he was publicly lambasted by Don Givens for failing to show for an U-21 game, but Keane actually shouldered the blame for that, admitting that it was Sunderland's responsibility to inform the FAI.

Sometimes, because of his reputation, Stokes has been sinned against. Sean McCaffrey, his former U-19 manager, has gone on record to say he never had any issues handling the Terenure lad.

"If you remember, after I made my senior debut, I went back and played with the U-19s a few days later. It's never mattered what age group, I love playing for Ireland," insisted Stokes last weekend.

Despite all the trials and tribulations, Stokes is a young man. He celebrates his 23rd birthday on Monday. He has approached a crossroads, however. Improvement in his second season with Celtic is a necessity. If Lennon makes the same decision as Wenger and Steve Bruce and deems the attacker surplus to requirements, then the perception that he lacks the temperament to cut it at a top club will be accepted as fact.

It would be a desperate shame if a player with such ability veered down that path. Ireland's striking options actually look quite healthy at the moment, but when you examine possible successors to Robbie Keane, Stokes offers a subtler alternative to the sheer athleticism and power of Shane Long, or even Leon Best.

But he will write his own history. Pundits have consistently stated that, if he keeps the head screwed on, a glittering career with both club and country is within his capabilities.

The patience is running out. Over to you, Anthony.

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