AS he was forced to explain in understandably exasperated tones to the broadcast media at Celtic Park yesterday, Neil Lennon simply does not have the resources to sign a proven Champions League goalscorer.
He does, however, believe he may now have a striker who is capable of making his mark at the highest level of the game, one he felt not so long ago would be surplus to requirements.
Anthony Stokes may have drawn a blank on his Champions League group-stage debut against AC Milan on Wednesday night but the Irishman’s overall performance did him no harm in the eyes of his manager.
It is a far cry from the days when Lennon simply did not trust Stokes to deliver on the biggest occasions, whether they were European ties, cup finals or Old Firm games.
For all of Stokes’ talent, his attitude off the pitch was a constant source of concern for Lennon, who revealed that at one stage he felt the player was destined to waste his Celtic career.
“It’s fair to say he was walking on very thin ice,” said Lennon. “I had him in the office a couple of times.”
Stokes’ penchant for attracting off-the-field headlines stretches back to his spells at both Sunderland and Hibs, while most prominently emerging at Celtic when he was pictured at a memorial event for murdered Real IRA member Alan Ryan in Dublin last year. But while the club disciplined Stokes for that incident, it was the player’s general conduct in his daily life as a footballer that most alarmed Lennon.
“He was hurting himself,” added Lennon. “It was nothing to do with stuff last year, the stuff in Dublin, it was just his indiscipline around the training ground and around the team. So he’s really tidied that up now and become a really good professional.
“I had question marks over his temperament in big games. I think his athleticism has improved now, I think his fitness is a lot better. His physical strength is a lot better than it was, and certainly his football.
“He was always a really good player, his striking movement was always good, very adept with both feet. But he was curtailing his own progress by his own indiscretions and indiscipline. But I think now, certainly since he returned from his injury last season, he has really knuckled down and he’s doing his talent justice now.
“You do sit down with them and talk to them about it, but ultimately it’s down to the individual. I’m really liking what I’m seeing in him at the moment. He’s always had goals in him and he will score goals at Champions League level if we can get the right service to him.
“I don’t know what made the penny drop for him. Maybe it was the injury and missing out on the whole Champions League campaign last year, sitting in the stand out there and watching the boys play against Barcelona and Spartak Moscow and realising what he has at Celtic.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until you’re not there. I’ve never spoken to him about it but I certainly think the natural thing would be to sit down and think ‘I want to be a part of this’ – and now he is.”
Stokes is in the final season of his current contract at Celtic but Lennon is optimistic a new deal will be agreed in the coming months. With the 25-year-old entering what should be his peak years, Lennon hopes to see him succeed Gary Hooper as Celtic’s main man up front and also to reclaim a place in the Republic of Ireland set-up, where he has been persona non grata since angering Giovanni Trapattoni by withdrawing from a squad two years ago.
“Anthony should be looking to be the number one striker here, to continue scoring goals at domestic and European level and he should be wanting to get in the Irish team,” added Lennon. “Again, he let himself down there. Unfortunately Trapattoni has gone now but you are hoping that when a new manager comes in the slate is wiped clean for him and he can make a change on that aspect of his game as well.
“I think with the fact Gary’s gone, he’s looking to be the number one here at Celtic and he’s enjoying that challenge. I was pleased with how he played in Milan.
“As a lone striker, you sometimes have to create your own opportunities but the one he had in the first half in Milan, he’s latched onto a mistake and I fancied him to score, but he just sclaffed the shot a little bit. And if his free-kick had been an inch or two lower, we’d all be raving about him.
“Away from home the striker can be starved of possession, but he got more of the ball than I thought he would. He was always playing on the shoulder of people. I thought he started a bit nervously but like the rest of the team he grew into the game.
“He did a lot of upper-body work when he was out injured last season but he is a naturally strong boy. In the strength tests that the boys do at the start of the season he’s top of the list, the weightlifting and that sort of stuff.
“He doesn’t look it; when you strip him off he looks like nothing. But he’s just a naturally strong boy. There were things he was doing in the game on Wednesday, he was challenging for balls in the air whereas before he was a little bit wishy-washy.”