HAVING set Celtic on their way to retaining the title by scoring both goals in the 2-1 win over Ross County on the opening day of the season last August, there was a pleasing symmetry for
Anthony Stokes as he doubled up again when they finished the job on Wednesday night.
By his own admission, the Irish striker has not been as prolific as he would like in the current campaign. But if his haul of 14 goals so far has fallen short of his expectations, finding the net twice in the 5-1 victory over Partick Thistle at Firhill which confirmed Celtic as champions was an experience the former Hibs man cherished.
“It’s nice to score a couple of goals in the game the title is clinched,” said Stokes. “We wanted to wrap it up as quickly as possible. We did it in good style and I was delighted to be part of it.
“We won it in style in the end. In the first half, we were a bit sloppy. Our passing wasn’t there and it just didn’t click up front. But in the second half we kicked on and went through the gears.
“My second goal was nice. It was a good finish. Georgios Sam-aras did brilliantly to set it up with a great bit of skill. My touch was good and it sat up perfectly for me.
“I’m never really happy when I’m not scoring goals. As a striker, that’s what you’re paid to do. But if I’m playing well and contributing to us winning games, then I can’t really complain.
“I think I’ve proved I can perform outside the penalty area as well. When I was at Hibs, I scored a lot of goals but my overall performances were nowhere near the standard they have been this season. There have been a number of factors in it, but I feel I have improved as a player.”
The champagne was strictly rationed at Firhill for Stokes and his team-mates, who were back at Lennoxtown for training yesterday morning. A pitch invasion by some of their supporters had also limited the post-match party. But Stokes was content there would be plenty of time to savour a title won with seven games to spare.
“We had to take it easy on the night,” he smiled. “With the fans getting a little excited after the game, we had to cut the celebrations short anyway. But we’ve got a game coming up at home to Ross County on Saturday and I’m sure we’ll celebrate after that.
“Over the course of the league, we have been the best team by a mile. We’ve been so consistent domestically in the league. Some of the performances have been outstanding. The boys at the back have been rock solid.
“We have just let ourselves down in the two domestic cup competitions. That was disappointing, but all we could do was just focus on the league. We wanted to finish the job in a bit of style, which I think we did [at Firhill].
“I feel very privileged to be in the position I’m in. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, playing for Celtic, and winning championships. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We want to push on and try to go forward. That’s got to be the aim.”
For Stokes, further personal progress may well be measured in Celtic’s bid to reach the Champions League group stage for a third consecutive year. So far, the 25-year-old has failed to score in his 12 appearances in Europe’s elite club tournament. “I would have liked to have scored in a couple of the Champions League games I’ve been in, there’s no doubt about that,” he added.
“But I look back on the games we played in Europe this season and I feel my performances were not bad. The only thing missing was a goal or two but it’s difficult. It’s completely different playing in Europe compared to our league where we have lots of possession and plenty of time on the ball. This season, I had to do more defensive roles in Europe and that’s part and parcel of being in a team. This season, the Champions League campaign was not great for us. We gave it a good go and in one or two games we were slightly unlucky but we just were not good enough and we need to try and improve for next year.
“It’s going to be a case of us all chipping in together and trying to improve our European campaign.”
Stokes’ form this season has earned him a recall to the Republic of Ireland squad under new manager Martin O’Neill and he hopes to maintain his standards at club level to enhance his chances of featuring in a Euro 2016 qualifying group which includes Scotland.
“I think it’s definitely been a big boost for me,” he said. “It was something that I was missing when I was away from the Ireland team. It’s great to be back involved. I know I have a long way to go before I can call myself a regular in the Irish team but if I can keep my performances to the same level I’ve shown for Celtic over the last few months, then I’ll give myself every chance of being in the squad.”
Stokes is relishing his strike partnership with January signing Leigh Griffiths, an alliance he hopes can grow in effectiveness next season.
“Leigh has done very well since he came in,” said Stokes. “He is slightly different to some of the other strikers, like Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde, because he has played up here before and knows the environment.
“He knows the teams he is playing against, so it’s slightly easier for him. It also helps that he already knew a couple of the lads, like Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew, from the Scottish international team. So he has settled in well and been first class so far. His goals return is good and he must have four or five assists now as well.
“I think he’s already shown he can be a team player. He set up one for Kris Commons against Kilmarnock the other week. He’s done both so far – scored goals and provided assists. You can’t really ask for more than that.”
Stokes also had warm praise for Celtic’s burgeoning midfield prospect, 17-year-old Liam
Henderson, who scored his first goal for the club in the title-clinching win.
“Hendo is one of the most down-to-earth boys I’ve ever come across in my life,” he said. “He is first class and you forget he’s only 17. In training, his movement and everything about him says he’s going to be a top-class player. I was
delighted for him to get his goal on Wednesday, because he missed an absolute sitter against St Mirren last Saturday.”
Having experienced his own difficulties during the teenage years of his career, Stokes was asked if there was any advice he would pass on to Henderson.
“I might have a quiet word with him,” he laughed. “But there will probably be more don’ts than dos, right enough!”