THE subject of falling foul of his manager during a troubled season for Anthony Stokes might have been expected to elicit either contrition or evasion from the Celtic striker.
The 24-year-old simply isn’t that type, however. In December, he was accused of “tarnishing” the club by Neil Lennon through his appearance at a Dublin fundraiser in honour of childhood acquaintance and murdered leading Real IRA figure Alan Ryan. That same month, there were questions raised over the attitude and professionalism of Stokes during his rehabilitation following an ankle operation that cost him the first six months of this campaign.
Yet asked if it hurt when Lennon criticised him, Stokes offered candidly: “No, not really. Listen, I don’t really care what the gaffer thinks of me personally. It would be nice to get on with him – and I think I have a good relationship with him. But I only really care about how I do on the pitch for him. That’s where I should be judged, on the pitch.
“I get on reasonably well with him. We’re not best mates but I don’t think he hates me either. It’s a normal player-manager relationship. I don’t care what other people think about me. Since I’ve been in the SPL I’ve always managed to score around 20 goals a season. If I’m playing every week I can hit 25 to 30. Unfortunately in the last couple of years I haven’t played every week. As a striker, I should be judged purely on goals and assists.”
A judgment will be made about the Irishman in the next couple of months that will shape his entire future. When the player signed from Hibernian for £800,000, he agreed a four-year contract, the final year of which came in the form of an option that Celtic alone can decide whether to exercise or not.
Stokes, who has harvested 44 goals from 90 appearances – all the more impressive considering only 63 of these were starts – appears philosophical about his situation. He would have ample justification for feeling that, regardless of any off-field issues, he has proved too valuable to simply discard.
“I’d like to think I’ll be here next season and for the foreseeable future,” Stokes said. “But we’ll have to play it by ear and wait to see what happens. There have been brief conversations about a contract but we haven’t gone into details yet. I hope it will be sorted before the end of the season. It would hurt to leave here [as it’s my boyhood club]. It would sting for a while but it’s football. It happens with managers and players every week. You move on but I hope that’s not the case with me here. The club have the one-year option but I’d rather sign a contract for longer. Any footballer will tell you it’s nice to have a bit of security and feel settled.”
Stokes has been settling in to regular first-team action again since his return to full fitness in the middle of January. With mixed results, he feels, having bagged four goals from 11 appearances. “When I look back on this season, I’ll see it as a difficult one no matter how many goals I score between now and the end. Purely because of the injury,” he said. “I was happy with my form in the first couple of games back but I need to lift it again now. If I’m not scoring goals I don’t think I’m doing my job.”
Meanwhile, Craig Brown, manager of today’s opponents, Aberdeen, does not believe his retirement announcement this week will have any impact on his players during their final attempts to make the top six of the SPL.
Brown revealed on Thursday that he would step down as Dons manager at the end of the season but there remain eight games left in the SPL, with the next three crucial.
Aberdeen travel to Celtic Park today in ninth place in the SPL with games against Hearts and Dundee United to follow. But Brown does not feel the certainty regarding his situation will have any effect. “I don’t think it will make the slightest difference,” he said. “Players are very resilient. Obviously they want to play for a manager they are pleased to play for.
“But it’s their job to play football and if there’s no manager or if [Jose] Mourinho came in or if Sir Alex [Ferguson] came back, they would hopefully be as enthusiastic for us as they would be for them.
“Over the years I’m not going to deny Sir Alex might make a difference, I’m sure he would. But in the immediate term there will be no difference in attitude.”