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Different Stokes

If Neil Lennon had his way, he wouldn't have signed Anthony Stokes.

He only did so reluctantly, with the desperation of a man clutching a mute mobile phone as the transfer deadline approaches.

Craig Bellamy or Robbie Keane were his primary aims; Stokes was merely a necessarily constructive afterthought when the marquee names demurred at returns to the often incestuous, unfulfilling restrictions placed upon footballers by domestic Scottish football.

That is not to say Lennon didn't admire the feisty character of Stokes.

Four years ago, the Lurgan man imploded on the field when provoked to excess by the irascible Dubliner; Lennon was sent off after alleged diving accusations, before flinging his captain's armband to the ground in disgust.

But Lennon, now installed as Celtic manager, knew enough about Stokes' other feisty characteristics to initially swerve when the 22-year-old striker was presented as a potential summer signing.

For all Liam Brady's exhortations seven years ago that the then Arsenal youth had the potential to become a great of the game, enough rumble strips had pockmarked his subsequent journey to ridicule that boast.

Recidivist disciplinary problems, from Sunderland to Hibernian, had impugned a burgeoning reputation in front of goal after his 14 goals in 16 games for Falkirk in the 2006-07 season rocketed his name to the forefront of so many football conversations.


Seven football clubs in five years hinted at a fitful nature; numerous nightclubs in the same period unmasked the clues to his inability to marry sustained commitment to raw talent. After securing a move to Sunderland in 2007, it emerged as little surprise that he became a casualty of both Roy Keane and Ireland U-21 boss Don Givens' respective fidelity to the basic tenets of managerial authority.

Three years on, it is ironic, then, that Stokes now finds himself at Celtic, the very club who he spurned three years ago -- supposedly because Sunderland's £14,000-a-week offer trumped Celtic's £6,000 deal.

According to Keane's comments after one indiscretion too many, Stokes was destined to become a player who is either performing "at a top club or in the non-league." Stokes is determined to ensure it will be the former.

At Lennon's first formal meeting with Stokes, he informally sought to test his new charge's commitment. "Don't take the p**s and there'll be no problems," was Lennon's brief message. Should he start tomorrow's first Old Firm derby of the season, the striker can be said to have thus far responded admirably to the clarion call.

"I like his attitude," said Lennon. "He works hard, his fitness levels are extremely impressive and he holds the ball up well and can run in behind defenders. It is still early days for him here as he has only played in a couple of games, but I've no doubts whatsoever he will prove to be a big player for us this season."

The early signals -- three goals in six games -- are brimful of the predominant promise that attaches itself to Stokes wherever he goes. Now he must faithfully follow those signs.

"Time was passing me by at that stage," is Stokes' cutting reflection on his wayward Sunderland safari. "Keane was only being honest with me when he told me I'd had one chance too many. I wasn't concentrating on my football and that was because I knew I wasn't going to be in the manager's first-team squad.

"I was young and stupid and that was showing up. My timekeeping wasn't good and Roy hated that. I liked a night out as well, except I was having two or three of them a week at Sunderland.

"All of that stemmed from the fact I wasn't playing. I was spending every day on a golf course and several nights on the town."

He was spotted in a nightclub recently -- Dublin's Krystle according to the gossip mongers of the 'Evening Herald'. But that was on a Saturday, rather than a Tuesday, as was his previous wont. And his golf game has, encouragingly, fallen into disrepair.

But there are never any guarantees with Stokes. After all, he may now think it was mistaken to spurn Celtic but he only did so because he regarded Keane as an iconic figure. That, too, was a mistake he seemed unable -- or unwilling -- to responsibly acknowledge.

When he turned up for Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland camp last May, Stokes seemed refreshed by a season of undemanding, but, crucially, liberating displays at Falkirk where his 21 league goals enabled him to be the second highest goalscorer behind Rangers' Kris Boyd.

And some counselling from a sports psychiatrist, he told us, enabled him to negotiate a safer passage to that fabled harbour Alex Ferguson has been quoting so mystically about all week.

"I was put in touch with Dan Abrahams by my agent," he confessed. "He's worked with a fair few players in the Premiership. It doesn't change your whole lifestyle but, for me, it gets me thinking more about my football."

Three caps under Trapattoni will inevitably become four when he is called upon to play against Norway next month; Lennon's instilling of a renewed work ethic abetting the Italian's renewed appreciation of what was once merely a raw, wayward talent when he first pitched up on these shores as Irish boss.

Lennon has not yet offered any distinct clues as to what his line-up may be tomorrow; a conservative 4-5-1 option would militate against Celtic's effervescent, unbeaten start to the season.

But he may have to decide whether to bend to the practical arguments of retaining his chief goalscorer, Gary Hooper, with Stokes by his side.

Just as with Ireland, there are always caveats with Stokes and one senses that Lennon's occasional ploy of deploying him on the right side of midfield is a method of prodding that increased work rate from his player.

Goals remain his currency and, while Stokes retains his inextricable belief that this should be the only method by which he is evaluated, there are other values which both Trapattoni and Lennon rate just as importantly.

For once, it seems, Stokes is appreciating the raised stakes.

"The game cannot come quickly enough," he said ahead of tomorrow's clash. "I've been to a number of Old Firm games in the past as a supporter and I've also watched plenty more on TV, so I know what to expect come Sunday.

"These games are the reason you want to play for a big club like Celtic."

For someone who still needs to silence doubters, it could be a defining moment in a career which has already had its fair share of second chances.

Celtic v Rangers,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 4, 12.45

Irish Independent