THE feelings of envy, so often the domain of those on the outside looking in, can be a significant driving force when it comes to swapping a spectator’s role for greater involvement.
Anthony Stokes has experienced that feeling too often in big games and last season’s spell on the sidelines, through injury, combined with the hurt of playing second fiddle to others when the massive games rolled round, have fired his desire for greater involvement this year.
Likewise, Fraser Forster, a player overlooked in favour of others at Newcastle United and since then on the international stage, has had to battle for the recognition he is now receiving.
Both players’ determination and greater maturity has forced them to the fore but also aided their club.
A young squad, guided by a young manager, Celtic were dismissed as contenders from the moment they were drawn alongside Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. Yet, against the Italians and then again, versus Barcelona on Tuesday, they have been fiercely competitive.
Progress in Europe now hinges, as anticipated, on the double-header with the Amsterdam outfit, but Lennon is happy to see he has players capable of rising to the challenge. It has been a journey of discovery for all involved. Appointed manager in March 2010, Lennon enlisted the services of both Forster and Stokes that summer. One arrived on loan from St James’ Park, the other along the M8 from Hibs. Now Forster is pulling off sensational double saves to foil La Liga’s finest and being touted to replace Joe Hart as England’s final line of defence, while Stokes is being trusted to perform specific roles and has earned further reward in being recalled to the Republic of Ireland squad.
“It’s brilliant, the timing of it has given him [Stokes] a boost and he is being rewarded for what he’s doing here. It’s recognition for him and the club and the timing is ideal,” said Lennon. “If he wasn’t playing well I wouldn’t play him. In the league he’s taken on the mantle from Gary Hooper. I think that was a challenge for him but he’s taken on that role very well. I can rely on him in games to do specific jobs as well because he’s been here quite a while and he knows what I want from him and he gets his fair amount of goals.
“We had to ask him to play a specific role that we only do against Barcelona and there was a discipline about his performance which you probably couldn’t say about him before. So he’s really maturing, he’s been called up for Ireland, which is brilliant for him. So he’s got to just stay in that place now, stay consistent and stay focused on his football. I think sitting out of the Champions League last year and missing all the big games made him realise what he had. He’s always, believe it or not, been incredibly fit. He’s very strong physically in any strength test we do. He doesn’t look it, he takes his top off and you think ‘f***ing hell’. But he’s naturally gifted in terms of his athleticism.
“He’s never been the quickest, we know that, but his cardiovascular capacity is very good.”
Stokes’ ability to deliver domestically is now bolstered by his capacity to rise to the challenge on the European stage, says Lennon, who has been thrilled by his on-field evolution. “I’ve seen more consistency in his game, I think he’s started the season very well. He’s always had goals in him. Now can he get goals at the Champions League level as well? I don’t think there is any reason why not – he was very unfortunate with the free-kick in Milan. He’s talented, he’s good with both feet, his movement off the ball is excellent, always has been but there is now a consistency which wasn’t there before.”
Lennon confesses that the proverbial stick was more often required than the carrot. “It was more a kick up the backside. He’s not gregarious or anything like that, he got the rascal in him but he’s really low maintenance at this moment, he trains every day and is very rarely injured.”
But, with Stokes’ contract due to expire in the summer, Celtic could be facing an unwelcome reshuffle of resources, especially if the likes of Forster continues to catch the eye of continental sides.
Benfica were his suitors previously but, following another night of heroics against Barcelona, it is rumoured that the Catalans themselves are also contemplating a bid. His manager has accepted that it is probably a matter of when not if he will lose Forster.
“He kept us in the game when we were chasing the equaliser,” said Lennon. “This is the difference between us now and maybe a few years ago. I know we had Artur [Boruc] but that gap in between then and now, the difference is the goalkeeper in qualifying for the Champions League and then progressing to the last 16 and again this year. I think Fraser has had a huge role to play in the success we have had in Europe in the last 18 months.”
Individual plaudits are fine but Forster says it is the team’s development which could still see them add more European wins to any domestic success.
He said: “We need to pick up points in the group and it’s a collective thing. It’s not about me as an individual, it’s about doing well for the team. We did very well to get back into the Champions League with the extra qualifying round. We’ve got a very tough group and it’s important we look forward to the remaining games and take it fixture at a time. We do want to be playing European football after Christmas and, if we can, aim for the Champions League.
“We are all very experienced and there are a lot of international players in the squad. We’ve played in big games. We’re relatively young but we are an experienced group. We’ve played European football for three seasons in a row and I think it shows.”
That constant desire for development has seen players prosper, others earn moves and achieve their ambitions. The Ajax games remain key to this season’s prospects but it’s in staying focused in the SPFL that they lay the foundations.