ANTHONY Stokes admits he doesn’t normally relish a trek up the A9 with Celtic. But the striker is looking forward to being greeted by one very familiar face when the champions face Inverness Caledonian Thistle at lunchtime tomorrow.
John Hughes, the new Inverness manager, has been the most influential figure in Stokes’ career. While Falkirk boss, Hughes signed the then teenage Stokes on loan from Arsenal in 2006 and was rewarded with 16 goals in 18 appearances by the Irishman.
Stokes then teamed up with Hughes again in 2009 when he moved to Hibs from Sunderland. His form for the Easter Road club under Hughes earned him his near £1 million transfer to Celtic the following year.
Even now, Stokes still refers to Hughes as “gaffer” in conversation. The 25-year-old regards him as both a mentor and a friend and is delighted to see him back in management.
“I still keep in touch with the gaffer,” says Stokes. “When he got the Inverness job I tried to ring him a couple of times but his phone must have been going out of control. So I texted him instead and I wished him all the best. He’s just someone I keep in contact with because I have a lot of respect for him. He’s the kind of guy I think I’ll always keep in touch with.
“He’s been brilliant for me. He gave me a great chance when I went on loan to Falkirk. It was the stage in my career when I had to get out and get playing first-team football regularly. He gave me a great platform to show what I could do and it’s something I will always be grateful to him for.
“I didn’t know him from Adam before I went to Falkirk but I clicked with him straight away. His management style really suited me and I became good pals with him. I’ve had some of the happiest times of my football career under him.
“I don’t know how or why he always got the best out of me. I just had a good understanding with him and he gave me a lot of freedom to go and express myself. I was only a young kid when I went to Falkirk. Even when I went on a bad run, he stuck by me and then the goals started to flow. He’s always backed me 100 per cent.”
Stokes believes the public perception of Hughes, forged in his playing days when he was a larger than life character on and off the pitch, can cloud the reality of a deep-thinking football man.
“There’s more to him than meets the eye,” added Stokes. “The one thing I’d say about him is that football’s his life. It’s all he does. It’s all he speaks about, it’s all you can get out of him. He’s got that reputation from way back of being a bit crazy from the stories that were going about. But he’s a great football man and he spends time up and down the country scouting players and trying to make his teams better. I remember one time at Falkirk when Paddy Cregg and myself were over at Stephen O’Donnell’s house and the gaffer just popped in unannounced. I didn’t know what was going on but Paddy said that it was just what he did. He just popped round for a chat sometimes. For me that’s good management, getting on with your players. Some people don’t take to it but I loved him and so did 99 per cent of the lads there.
“Obviously Terry Butcher did really well at Inverness and he is away to Hibs, which is another massive club. But the gaffer is also a big character. Speaking from a personal level, he got the best out of me and I’m sure he will get the best out of the lads up at Inverness too.”
Despite his fondness for Hughes, Stokes will be doing his utmost to leave his old boss empty-handed tomorrow as Celtic look to maintain their unbeaten record in the Scottish Premiership this season.
“It’s massive and it’s something we pride ourselves in,” he added. “We’ve had a great start to the season, the consistency has been tremendous and we want to maintain that. We’re taking it game by game and we just want to keep it up. Winning games is what it is all about. It is demanded at this club and we will keep striving towards that.
“Obviously this year has been a bit disappointing in Europe, but we want to finish this season on a high and win trophies. It’ll be another difficult game in Inverness. We enjoy playing there, although I wish it was a bit closer! But it’s our last game of 2013, so we want to go out on a winning note.”