Monday 18 December 2017

Stokes a changed man ready to make his mark

Reunion with old boss Keane may be catalyst striker needs to spark Ireland career into life

Irish Soccer International Anthony Stokes pictured at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Club, where the Irish team are staying.
Irish Soccer International Anthony Stokes pictured at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Club, where the Irish team are staying.
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"I don't think anyone could have managed me when I was 20. All I saw was goals and playing for myself."

THERE is a point, mid-sentence, where Anthony Stokes checks his train of thought to point out that he is only 25 years old and not some grizzled veteran.

The context is elaboration on the injury woe that may be remembered as the turning point of his career, yet the overall sentiment could apply to a variety of headings that colour the perception of the Dubliner.

Forget the name for a minute and consider the additions to the CV. In the past three months, he has started his first competitive games at international level, debuted in the Champions League group stages and signed a three-year contract with Celtic.

For anyone else his age, the achievement would be accompanied by unconditional excitement about what might come down the tracks. But with Stokes, the narrative is different because he has lived in our minds for so long that some juries have already reached a verdict.

As a teenager he was Irish football's next big thing, and critics would argue that he made the expectations worse by behaving like the description before proving it. And so, with every positive step, there is a chorus which argues that he should be doing better.

SCATHING

Roy Keane mentioned Stokes in complimentary terms on Wednesday as he discussed the quality of the Irish dressing-room. There was a time when Keane's scathing words provided the basis of the scepticism about the mercurial talent's future prospects.

It was the Corkman who shelled out £2m to bring an 18-year-old Stokes to Sunderland in 2007, when his goalscoring exploits on loan at Falkirk led to a bidding war over the Arsenal product.

"At one stage, I had more or less told him (Keane) I was going to a different club, but I listened to what he said and rang him one night to say I was going to Sunderland the next day because I had changed my mind," recalls Stokes.

It was the start of a chequered relationship, with Stokes' poor timekeeping and fondness for a local nightclub named The Glass Spider grabbing headlines and exasperating the rookie manager, prompting Keane to wonder aloud if the forward would still be earning a crust from the sport five years down the line. Neither could have envisaged this unlikely reunion.

"He gave me a great opportunity," reflects Stokes, "and things didn't go as well as both of us had planned. The main thing is that he wanted the players to be punctual and that wasn't one of my strong points at 18.

"I've improved on that no end. I'm a different person and a different player and I'm sure Roy has probably changed the way he conducts himself around players as well. I've always had the utmost respect for him. Anything that happened at Sunderland, 90pc was my problem, my fault. I hold nothing against him and I don't think he's the type of character that holds too many grudges. I think you can see that with him coming back to work here with the FAI."

Stokes is keen to demonstrate a new-found maturity. Indeed, the Irish assistant now appears to be a believer again. "Everytime I see Anthony Stokes, he affects games," he says.

Neil Lennon is credited for the central role in his revival, yet at the beginning of the last season the Hoops supremo was beginning to worry about the development of both the footballer and the person. An ankle complaint kept Stokes on the sidelines for the first half of that campaign, which meant he was absent from the epic group stage win over Barcelona and subsequent charge to the Champions League knockout stages. He struggled with spectating and made things harder for himself with some questionable decisions away from football, with Lennon publicly reprimanding the player for attending an event in Dublin honouring the slain Real IRA figure Alan Ryan.

That topic is a no-go area, but the depiction of Stokes in that unfortunate period is at odds with the man you meet today. Indeed, in person, he has always come across well.

"A lot of people take me the wrong way," he says, when asked if he has learned life lessons in the past two years.

"Listen," he continues, "I'm one of the most laid-back people on the planet, I just take it as it is. It doesn't bother me. The only thing I would say is that they rarely say it to you. It's easy for people to speak to you over Twitter and have an opinion of you on the internet but, to me, they're irrelevant, they're nothing to me in my life. I concentrate on my family and friends, and that's all that matters."

These days, his tweeting largely chronicles the joys of fatherhood. His son Bobby is almost two and a bundle of energy that dominates his post-work endeavours. One of the tattoos that decorate his arms bears the name of his pride and joy, and embracing the responsibility has helped his focus. "I have my football and then I go home and spend time with him," he explains.

He now reflects on the protracted spell on the sidelines as a blessing in disguise. "An eye-opener and a stepping stone," he asserts. After leaving Sunderland under a cloud in 2009, a year at Hibernian helped to rebuild his reputation but his first two years at Celtic were stop-start, with question marks hanging over his future at the beginning of 2013. The gym rehab during his lay-off, which isolated the joker from the dressing-room banter, started to pay off and he returned to action as a physically stronger operator.

A man-of-the-match display in the Scottish Cup final capped a sustained run of impressive form and the sale of Gary Hooper opened the door for a prominent billing in this term's European voyage and, eventually, the penning of a fresh deal.

Crucially, Lennon has grown to trust him, even if the job spec is different to his teenage dreams. When Barcelona visited Glasgow in October, snaffling a victory they scarcely deserved, Stokes was deployed as an auxiliary midfielder.

He spent his night shuffling from side to side, concentrating on his main brief, which was a man-to-man job on Sergio Busquets; the natural instinct to attack was shelved. "The way Neil puts it to me is that he needs to be able to rely on me, and if it means playing defensively for 90 minutes then I'll do that.

"Could I have done it when I was 20? Of course not. I don't think any manager could have managed me then, to be honest, because all I saw was goals and playing for myself. This comes with age, and a bit of experience."

The previous Irish management team wrote him off as a beaten docket from the outset, unconvinced by his work ethic. Stokes traces it back to an U-21 game in Tallaght that was watched by Marco Tardelli. He scored twice in a man-of-the-match display as Ireland thrashed Estonia 5-0, but converting a penalty with a cheeky 'Panenka' style chip failed to impress the Italian.

"He (Tardelli) turned around to me after and didn't really say well done," says Stokes. "All he said was 'You shouldn't play to the crowd so much' and I didn't get what he was talking about until he said it was to do with the penalty. In his eyes, I don't think I was ever going to fit into the regime and the way they wanted to play."

The significance of that Estonian win is that it marked Noel King's first match as U-21 supremo. Stokes, who had no love for Don Givens, clicked with the new man but he was soon too old for that sphere. When King was handed the senior caretaker reins he instantly brought the Celtic man's exile to an end, and then preferred him to Shane Long in the concluding World Cup qualifiers with Germany and Kazakhstan.

"He had to show a lot of faith in me," concedes Stokes.

In Cologne, he was deployed as the lone striker, and succeeded in both delighting and disappointing the interim boss by showing the awareness in general play to meander into the right positions and then failing to take the chances. "On another night, I could have scored three or four and been the hero," he says, with a wry smile. "That's the thin line you walk on. In that way, it was a frustrating a night but I was happy too because 90pc of what you do is trying to get into those areas."

VERSATILITY

The Kazakhstan win was about demonstrating versatility, and his overall contribution from a wide role was positive, even if his selection there caused some controversy. "I had played there more than 10 times before for Celtic," he shrugs. "These days, you have to be able to adapt."

At heart, his preference is to operate as a poacher and, while an autumn of mixing it with some of the top teams in Europe has showcased the enhancement to his overall package, the failure to register a goal in elite company is an annoyance. Still, it's better than not being there.

Hard work and perseverance has brought him closer to his ambition, and he's young enough to become the player that Ireland wants him to be. Another year on an upward curve will accelerate the process of leaving the baggage of the past behind.

* With thanks to Three, primary sponsor of the Irish football team.

 

Irish Independent

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