SOMETHING has been lost for Anthony Stokes under the leadership of Ronny Deila. About three-quarters of a stone in weight thus far.
A visibly more-sculpted frame is the clearest possible evidence that the Celtic striker has embraced the strict conditioning regime introduced by the Norwegian since his summer arrival.
Much has been made of Deila’s drive to have his players curb the carbs and, in the process, shave off the pounds. The Celtic manager sees improving his players’ fitness as central to their ability to produce high-tempo football for the entire 90 minutes, something that was beyond them on Thursday night as their energy sapped and they had to retreat and cling on for a crucial 1-0 Europa League win over Dinamo Zagreb.
Stokes, for all that much-publicised off-field incidents have hardly suggested he has previously considered his body a temple, has no issues with the Celtic management team’s methods or their motives. Even if it means the odd plate of chips appears to be off the menu.
“I think everyone is trying to cut down,” says the 26-year-old. “He is very rigid on body fat and body weight. He wants everyone at their prime. I have definitely changed. It’s something I’m very conscious of. He has made us very aware that we are doing body testing and weighing ourselves every two weeks. If you are not at a certain weight…
“I’m probably down five kilos since I came back for pre-season. I still probably have another couple of kilos to get to the weight that he wants but I don’t mind that. If I can get to my prime body weight, that’s only going to help me. It’s probably one of the things I’m focusing on more than I have at any stage in my career.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. Any manager that comes in is going to see certain aspects that he wants to tweak. Fitness, his style of football… that’s the way he wants to play. We respect that and we understand now what he wants to do and what he wants out of the team. It’s a gradual process but we are slowly but surely getting there.’
As a product of the Arsenal youth system, one-time Sunderland player and Celtic employee for the past four years, unyielding dietary requirements and a focus on athleticism are hardly alien concepts to Stokes. “At every club I’ve played at, everybody tries to eat well,” he says. “At a big club like this the food has always been exceptional. I think he just wants to eke a bit more out of every player. Five or ten per cent more from every player and I’m sure we’ll see a different team – if we can get there. We are all trying to improve and buy into the way he wants to play. Looking at the Zagreb game, you can see we are all doing our best for him.”
The results appear rewarding. Even if he hasn’t been free-scoring, Stokes has become an integral member of Deila’s Celtic attack. He has featured in a variety of positions and performed with a fluency. The exquisite touch with which he set up Kris Commons for the winner against Dinamo was a reminder of his genuine talent. Yet, his manager’s demands are exacting enough to believe that Stokes can do much more than up his game by five or ten per cent. Much more.
“He has a very good attitude but he’s only 70 per cent of what he can be fitness-wise in my opinion,” says Deila. “His skills are unbelievable. What he produced on Thursday with Kris is high level. There’s a lot more to come, he’s young still, and that’s good with this squad, a lot of players still have the best time of their career in front of them.”
And, even if Celtic appear to be sitting pretty in Group D of the Europa League with four points from two games, Deila is still striving for more. The Norwegian does not seek to varnish the performances that brought a 2-2 draw away to top seeds FC Salzburg and then a first win in six continental outings. With back-to-back games against Romanians Astra Giurgiu – the perceived weakest, and so far only pointless side in the section – to come, Celtic have the platform to progress.
Deila, though, introduces a note of caution. “If we do beat Astra home and away, there is going to be three teams fighting for it. It could be that we need more than the ten points I thought before we started. You never know. We need to take it a match at a time, but we also have to admit that both teams we have met so far have had more goal chances than we have. To see behind the results is very important and we have to improve if we are going to get through this group stage because now we have been a little bit lucky.”
For Deila, maybe it is a case of fortune favouring the fitter.