THE decision by Anthony Stokes to reject Celtic’s initial contract extension won’t lead to a parting of the ways with the club, his manager Neil Lennon is convinced.
He wants the striker to stay – and the “rascal” in him to be left behind. Setting the two on separate paths never seems to be easy, however.
In recent weeks, the club has been in discussions with the agent of the 24-year-old over new terms covering the next two years. “I would imagine we’ll come again and get it done, so we’ll speak to his agent over the next week or so,” said Lennon.
At the same time, the Celtic manager has also had to have a chat with Stokes about an incident in a Dublin nightclub that led to allegations from an Elvis impersonator that the Celtic player had assaulted him. Coming at the end of a season in which Stokes was disciplined for attending a charity fundraiser in honour of a murdered member of the Real IRA and had his attitude questioned during his three-month rehabilitation following ankle surgery in August, the latest off-field incident was entitled to leave Lennon groaning. But it didn’t. “I spoke to him and got his version. It was quite contrary to what was run in the papers. We haven’t heard anything from the police but once we get the full facts… it looks like it’s been blown out of proportion,” said the Celtic manager.
The same might be said of Stokes’ entire bad-boy reputation, his manager just might now be willing to venture. “You don’t want to take the devil out of him but that was affecting his performances on the field as well. I think the injury, and sitting out the Champions League games, sort of sparked something in him. He worked really hard, came back and, after being a bit inconsistent at first, which you understand after so long out, towards the end of the season he was playing well and showed what a very, very good player he can be when he puts his mind to it.
“He’s naturally a very strong boy, having done all the tests. He’s come back in very good condition so he’s got a good ten or 15 years in him, and if he puts his mind to it he can have a very good career. I’d like him to stay. His goalscoring record is good and in the [Scottish] Cup final I thought he had his best game for us in a lot of aspects.
“[He’s not really tested me off the park] it’s more a case of letting himself down. Then it becomes ‘right, you’re out of the team, and the team goes on and flourishes and you’re sitting there looking in. It’s nobody’s fault but your own.’ You’ve got to learn from those mishaps, but we’ve all been there, we’ve all crossed the line in terms of discipline before so I’m quite comfortable with it. I saw a difference in him last year though. He’s always been a good trainer, so I’m hoping for a big season from him. He’s a great lad. He does though have that self-destruct button at times but more and more he’s tending to shy away from that now.
“He’s still only 24, he’s not fully matured yet, but he’s intelligent enough to know. He has retracted some of the stuff from last year, he knows he let himself and the club down. And there have been other indiscretions, but in the main his behaviour was exemplary.”
Whatever issues the conduct of Stokes may have raised, his goalscoring in the Scottish top flight could never cast him in an unfavourable light. His 47 goals for Celtic since his move from Hibernian in August 2010 have come at a rate of one every other game.
The failure of other striking recruits Mo Bangura, Miku or Lassad to make any real impression in the scoring stakes indicates the importance of Stokes’ bankability as a domestic net-finder. Especially when Gary Hooper, the only other prolific goalscorer at the club, seems certain to leave. Lennon added: “[Stokes] has goals in him and, as you saw in the cup final, there are other good aspects to his game. The penny should drop with him. What he has been is inconsistent. If you can be consistent and put that together over a more concerted period of time I think we’ll have another good player on our hands.”
And a player to be trusted on the major European occasions, which hasn’t tended to be the case? “I think he’s coming to that age when he’s maturing and physically he’s getting stronger,” said Lennon. “He’s been around long enough to know what’s expected of him now and I think he’ll play more of a part in the bigger games. I’d have no problem playing him up on his own. He can be selfish that way, he’d like the responsibility. He’s not blindingly quick but he’s good with both feet and his movement off the ball is the best at the club.”
In contrast to his movements off the park which are sometimes among the most ill-judged at the club.
Champions League takes priority over domestic treble for Celtic manager
OWING to their monumental economic and structural advantages over all domestic opposition, a treble is considered Celtic’s for the taking in the season ahead. If such a feat eludes Neil Lennon across his entire tenure, some would attempt to present him as falling short. The Celtic manager, though, cares less about the clean sweep and more about being swept along by the excitement of a Champions League group campaign.
“You can’t be blasé about it [the treble], it’s a very difficult thing to do,” the Celtic manager said. “But it wouldn’t cause me massive disappointment. Last season was great winning the double. If we can improve on that, so be it. But our priority is obviously the Champions League and the league – if we can win a domestic cup on top of that, brilliant. It’s not high on my list of priorities, though. You have to see how the season develops. It only takes one off day – which we had [in the League Cup semi-final] against St Mirren – and bang goes the treble. But is it a yardstick for me? No.
“For the next six or seven weeks our focus is on the Champions League. We hope for six ties before a ball is really kicked in anger. It would be a great achievement if we could get to the group stages again and with a shorter break and one more tie, bigger than last season. Does it put less emphasis on the domestic football at times? It probably does because the Champions League brings so much to the pot and the fact that we are getting a £12 million bid for a player [Victor Wanyama] is probably due to the performances they put in in Europe.”
Celtic returned to pre-season training last week in preparation for their second-round Champions League qualifying tie away to Cliftonville on 17 July, with the Glasgow return six days later. It all seems too much too soon, for Lennon. Asked if he was ready, the Celtic manager supplied an honest assessment. “Not really, no. It feels as if we haven’t been away,” he said. “A week break with the family. I don’t know how the players are feeling. They look in good condition, as you’d expect with the break so short but the cup final feels as if it was the weekend past.”