IN THE summer Anthony Stokes nestled near the top of a Celtic ranking. It was the one comprising those players whose faces weren’t likely to fit, and who weren’t expected to be able to reach the fitness levels required in the athleticism-and-abstinence-accented era of new manager Ronny Deila.
Six months on, the 26-year-old Irishman has not only remade himself as a sporting performer in the physical and psychological sense, he has made himself a fixture in a new-look Celtic side. While others such as Kris Commons, Leigh Griffiths and Efe Ambrose – for various reasons – have been reduced in importance by regime change, Stokes has been renewed by it. Whatever else that might be said about him, the Dubliner’s durability across four-and-a-half years at Celtic is beyond question.
He confessed the other day that not so long ago it would have been simply inconceivable that he could command a place in a Celtic side when he wasn’t selected as a central striker. He might not consider himself a natural wide man, but his stationing on the left of a three-pronged attack has allowed him to do the job in Deila’s eyes.
Net-bulging moments will always be his preoccupation, and his stated mission to join the select Celtic 100-goal club – with his current tally a highly impressive 77 from 177 appearances. However, even though he deems an eight-goal total for this term insufficient – albeit better than at this stage a year ago – the forward considers that this campaign has brought him a contentment he has rarely known previously in his career. A professional existence that began in the Arsenal youth ranks went on to deliver deadly spells with Falkirk and Hibs, and a deathly spell at Sunderland. The manner in which he has appeared magnetically drawn to controversy off the field may have coloured perceptions of him, but Stokes’ game intelligence has shone through in how he has adapted to his new role.
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“It’s a bit strange,” he admitted of the position. “I’m by no means an out-and-out winger and the formation that we play is slightly different. I’ve got Emilio [Izaguirre] playing so close to me and to be fair he does a lot of the work for me.
“We’ve a good understanding and if he makes a run, I know where to put the ball. Sometimes I just play the ball blindly because I know he’s going to be there. He’s always bombing around the outside of me or making a run inside. The way we’re playing at the moment it’s probably a bit deceiving because we have Stefan [Johansen] almost in midfield always bombing up to support, and [John] Guidetti up front.
“There’s constantly angles and people to play in. Even when I’ve played up front in the past, I’ve always tended to drift out to the left. I’m further wide just now. I try to get into the box. I’m scoring goals and getting myself in there. I’m happy with the role I’m playing.”
Celtic’s 4-2-1-3 system – “rigid” Stokes called it – recalls the Portuguese way, where the wide forwards do not hug touchlines or make for bylines as used to be expected of those assuming these roles in British configurations of the pattern.
“If the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch, he [Deila] wants me to play as close to a striker as I can and get in the box and try to score goals,” Stokes said. “But when it’s on our side of the pitch he wants us to develop the play and get Emilio to the touchline and get balls in the box, or even come inside and play with John or the other midfielder.
“I’ve got a lot of freedom out there, which I like. Even when I played with the likes of Hoops [Gary Hooper], I tried to stay as close as I could to him. He was the more likely to be sniffing around in the box – the gaffer probably wanted me to do that as well but I liked to wander about and try to get on the ball and interact with the interplay.
“I’m enjoying it out there at the minute. I need to improve in a couple of areas. I am working on my left foot. I spent half an hour at training on Friday putting in crosses and my left foot was hanging after it. That will help me develop my game. I don’t think I’ll ever be an out-and-out winger, but with our current formation, and the way we’re playing just now, it actually suits me.
“I still see myself as a striker. I’m only 26 but I want to stay at Celtic for as long as possible and I want to keep myself in the team. You have to adapt to different managers and how they want to play. The more positions you have, the more opportunities you have to get in the team.
“It’s strictly one up front for us just now. We don’t change our formation, whether in domestic football or European football, and that’s something the gaffer is very rigid on. There’s only one space for a striker up front and it’s good to have different aspects to my game. I’ve been comfortable out on the left all season and I’ve played in 99 per cent of the games. I’m enjoying my football and I’m looking forward to trying to improve.”
To that end he has lost another kilo to add to the six he had previously shed as he sought to measure up to Deila’s body-fat demands. With the Christmas period characterised by indulgence, we might well be into the trickiest time of the season for Stokes, who offered with a wry grin: “I haven’t checked out my weight recently… I’ll leave it for the next couple of weeks, then check again three weeks into January.” Stokes has made mincemeat of those gloomy forecasts over his Celtic career. Now he better stay off the mince pies.
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