Lennon a big fan of 'rascal' Stokes
HE may have missed the final cut for Tuesday's meeting with Wales, but Neil Lennon is sure that Irish fans will one day see the best of Anthony Stokes.
The Celtic manager believes the same could be said for the Parkhead faithful, stressing his confidence that the 22-year-old has a glittering future ahead.
Despite his young age, Stokes already has a colourful career behind him. After being tipped for great things at Arsenal, he has starred in Scotland, flopped at Sunderland, and then undergone another positive transformation north of the border.
Roy Keane's critical analysis of the Dubliner's social life has planted a negative perception. Rather than challenging that assertion, Lennon stressed his belief that once Stokes goes about his work properly, his slightly mischievous side should be accepted.
"Look, he's a wee bit of a rascal," said Lennon. "But we've all been there. And I wouldn't take that away from his personality. I quite like that.
"I don't mind that at all as long as he keeps working as hard as he's doing. And he's good to have around the place. He's ingratiated himself very well into the squad. The players like him and the staff like him. And we're delighted with the form he's been showing. His confidence has grown and he's become a very important player for us."
The Hoops boss was speaking at the Aviva Stadium, a venue that Stokes will be missing from for next Tuesday's Carling Nations Cup clash between Ireland and Wales -- unless Giovanni Trapattoni's squad suffers injuries over the weekend.
The Italian has expressed concerns about Stokes' individuality, feeling that he still has plenty to learn about teamwork.
His club manager acknowledges there are some weaknesses, yet is confident that his player will go on to enjoy a successful international career.
"He could probably work a little bit on his link-up play. There's times when his game appreciation can be better," he stated.
"But you get that with young players. He's a very instinctive player, Anthony. He's a great lad and he's maturing all the time.
"But I think, at times, he could get hold of the ball at little bit better. But that's nit-picking.
"You look at his goal ratio at the moment, and it's fantastic -- he's got 17 this season. So he's well on his way to getting over 20 and that will be a great return."
The major question mark that lingers, of course, is why Stokes has failed to score enough goals at both Premier League and Championship level in England.
"I'm not sure," said Lennon. "He's only 22, so you have to take that into consideration. He had a good time under John Hughes at Falkirk and Hibs, and we liked the cut of his jib. I like the way he plays. He's a bit of a maverick at times. As regards his career in England, it might have happened too quick for him. He's come to us and he's progressing very nicely."
So, can he thrive for Ireland one day?
"Eventually, yeah," he continued, "He's got a lot more to him than people realise and as he gets older, he'll incorporate all these things into his game. And you'll have a very good player on your hands."
This weekend, Lennon and Stokes will be engaged in Old Firm activity, and a break from league action, as the rivals meet in the Scottish Cup.
Celtic have opened up a five-point lead over Rangers at the top of the SPL table, but Walter Smith's side have two games in hand.
Lennon is satisfied with his lot, although he admits that he is starting to think about his own future. He is waiting for guarantees about a contract beyond the end of this season, although he takes heart from the strong relationship he enjoys with Dermot Desmond.
"The longer the season goes on, you think about your own situation," he said. "But there's plenty going on to keep me occupied."
"When I took the job, I was under no illusions about what the remit was. And the priority is to win the league."
Keeping Stokes on the right track will be central to achieving that ambition.