EVERYBODY is entitled to their opinion and Anthony Stokes isn’t afraid to express his, even if it contradicts the views of his manager in the business of the Old Firm game last weekend and all the controversy contained within.
Lennon railed in the aftermath of Ibrox. One rubbish refereeing call after another, he said. Well, on Friday, Stokes begged to differ.
“Some of the decisions in the Rangers game were hard for the referee,” said the striker. “Victor’s [red card] you can see both ways. If it was one of their players making the tackle you’d probably say ‘red’. I thought they were 50-50 decisions. Even the first one, Cha [Du-Ri] is on the wrong side. [Lee] Wallace goes down easily but, if it was one of our players inside the defender, we’d probably be shouting for it. I don’t think there was too much to complain about.”
Not “joke” decisions, then. Not for the first time this season, Stokes has nailed it. The inconsistency of his manager’s argument is laid bare by his own player here. It’s not that Stokes is having a go at Lennon, it’s just that he was answering a question as honestly as he could. He could put himself in the shoes of the referee and appreciate how difficult his job was on Sunday. He could see why Cha and Wanyama were sent off. If it was Rangers men who did what they did he’d be looking for them to go, too. It works both ways. Stokes was being consistent. No double standards, just direct talking.
He was asked if he thought his manager was being picked on by officials. “I wouldn’t say he’s picked on,” he replied. “The gaffer is entitled to his own opinions. I’ve seen managers lose it on the touchline and not be sent off, but I’m not going to say he’s been singled out or anything like that.”
This is a refreshing analysis from the Irishman. Many of his own people won’t agree with him but he doesn’t come across as the type of character who bothers that much about what others think of him. He has his thoughts and that’s that.
This season he has had his goals, too. Twenty so far. That’s one in every other game. He’s well on course to beat his previous high of 23 when he was at Hibs. Over the course of his 81 games for Celtic he has got 40 goals, only two fewer than Gary Hooper, the more celebrated member of the club’s double act up front. And this season, unlike last season, all of them have been from play. No easy penalties to beef up his total this time. Stokes has had a terrific time of it and has scored some crucial, almost season-defining, goals along the way.
“I think I’ve had a successful season. Every year you want to try to improve. I was happy to get a bit of a run in Europe this year and score one or two goals there. The team as a whole didn’t start the season well but, after the 3-3 game with Kilmarnock, it’s been a great run. I’ve matured as a person a little bit. I’ve understood you have to be a bit patient at a club like this. I’ve got more chances. You just have to try to improve.”
The last two weeks have been grim, of course. The League Cup final loss at Hampden and that surprising reverse at Ibrox last Sunday. He had chances in both games, chances that came and went.
“I don’t know what went wrong against Kilmarnock,” he says, including Gary Hooper in his review of the Cup final. “As strikers we have to take some of the criticism as well. We’ve missed decent chances in the past couple of games, but that happens sometimes. We just have to try to rectify it. I can only talk from a personal opinion and it doesn’t bother me when I miss chances.
“I missed a sitter against Dundee United and scored a few minutes later. You just have to persevere and block it out when you do miss chances because it’s always going to happen. It goes out of your head. It makes you more determined if anything.”
In the Old Firm game Stokes was denied the chance to do something about it when he was taken off in the wake of Cha’s red card. There’s no sullenness on show, not now and not when his number was called. New-found maturity kicking in, perhaps? “There’s not much I can do about it. I can understand what the gaffer was saying. We were down a man and [Georgios] Samaras is six or seven inches bigger than me. We needed a physical presence up front so I could understand that to a certain extent.
“It was obviously a big game to lose, but we have to forget about it now. We’re still in a great position in the league, but you’ve seen [in] the last two games that people’s opinions of you can change very quickly.”
Kyle Lafferty has had things to say since then, of course. The Northern Irishman shot his mouth off during the week, not that his words were analysed all that much in Lennoxtown. “We haven’t really spoken about it and wouldn’t want to pay much heed to it. I’m not really bothered. I wouldn’t agree with him, mind you. Opinions are for everyone and he has his. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season. We’ll see who wins the trophies and who has the medals.”
We return to the subject of his manager, banished to the press room on Sunday. Will it hurt the team if he gets a touchline ban because of what went down at Ibrox? “I don’t think it will. We’ve got great staff here like Johan [Mjallby], Thommo [Alan Thompson] and Parks [Garry Parker]. I’m sure the gaffer will get his message across through them and we’ll play as he wants.
“Everybody thinks he [Lennon] is screaming his head off and hammering the players during the game but it’s as much praise as it is criticism. He can give you a lift on the pitch. He has been here long enough. Everybody knows what to expect from him. He’s passionate, he was like that as a player and he’s like that as a manager. That doesn’t mean he’s like that in the dressing-room. He’s not always in there shouting his head off. He tries to get his message as best as possible. Everybody knows that he loves the game and just wants us to do as well as we possibly can.”
One day soon there will be a championship medal around Stokes’ neck, hard-earned and well-deserved. He hasn’t received the plaudits his goals have deserved and he’s not a player Lennon singles out very often, but his contribution has been huge. Think back to turning points in the season and one stands out above all others – the second half at Kilmarnock. Celtic were 3-0 down and in need of something special. Stokes scored twice in four minutes and the comeback to beat all comebacks was up and running.
When the story of their glory is told, Stokes’ name will be writ large across the page.