HIBERNIAN have a respectable record against Celtic in the league, having beaten the champions at Easter Road and drawn with them at Parkhead last season.
But if they are to continue that trend tomorrow, Pat Fenlon believes his team will have to tie down one player in particular – striker Anthony Stokes.
You can formulate a plan to nullify Neil Lennon’s side, and you may think you have catered for every eventuality. But Fenlon thinks that, no matter how systematic your preparations, the unpredictability of Stokes can always catch you unawares.
“I know Anthony well,” the Hibs boss said of his fellow Dubliner. “He was at Shelbourne as a kid when I was the manager there before he went to Arsenal. I know him really well from a playing point of view, although I don’t know him that well personally. He’s a real talent, and I think Gary Hooper leaving [Celtic] has really helped him. He’s the main man and that has helped him.
“I’m delighted he’s back in the Ireland squad, because he’s a player we have lacked. He’s someone I would describe as a street footballer – he has different things to his game, he’s not methodical in the things he does, and to have that in your team is a great asset. From a defensive point of view he is difficult to tie down, because he does things off the cuff. From Ireland’s point of view it is brilliant to have him back – but I was hoping he might’ve picked up something and not be fit again until Tuesday night.
“He was just a kid at Shelbourne, maybe 14, but he was such a special talent, a really good schoolboy player. He was bigger than everybody but he had all the natural ability in the world, the kind of thing you can’t coach. He was always that type. But as far as I’m concerned there’s not enough of them about. I hope Anthony doesn’t mind me calling him a street footballer, because it’s something we don’t have enough of in Ireland. We’re not developing these type of players any more, because the lads don’t play on the streets. Unfortunately that’s the way the game’s going.”
In Leigh Griffiths, Hibs had the Scottish equivalent of Stokes: a player blessed with natural talent whose ability to burst into life means defences cannot rest for a second. Asked if the key to getting the best out of a player such as Griffiths was to apply the metaphorical arm around the shoulder, Fenlon hinted at how difficult it could be to deal with that kind of maverick talent.
“Arm around the shoulder?,” he said. “It was more like the neck. He [Stokes] is similar to Leigh, because there’s a natural ability there. The key with Leigh was getting that ability on the pitch away from anything that was going on off the pitch. That man-management is as important as anything else, to try and get a real talent to perform to the level they are capable of.
“There are a lot of different ways depending on the player. When you have players like Anthony and Leigh you have to find a way, rather than saying: ‘I can’t be arsed, that’s too much like hard work.’ You want to make them the player they can be. Anthony, like Leigh, has probably matured more. He sees things in a better light, that he has a real talent and doesn’t want to waste it. I have said that to Leigh a few times: ‘You have a talent to play at a really high level, don’t waste it.’
“There’s no real coaching with guys like that. When they’re in and around the box you just tell them to go and do your own thing. Once I had Leigh on the training ground he wasn’t a nightmare at all. When he left the training ground you worried for him.”
Fenlon declined to speculate on the relationship Stokes had with former Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni – during his reign the forward seemed to have been frozen out of international action. But he did suggest that, having returned to the Ireland squad, Stokes had the opportunity to show a new manager that he deserved to stay there when the time comes to start qualifying for Euro 2016.
“Different managers have different ways of playing and Trapattoni didn’t pick him, for whatever reason. Wes Hoolahan, another player I had as a kid, is another special talent, but some people want to just use certain players. You have to accept that. But Anthony is back, and he is young enough to have a real impact for the next European Championship. What’s gone is gone, and Anthony just needs to make sure that, whoever comes in next, he stays in the squad.”
Michael Nelson and Paul Hanlon are set to be the Hibs centre-halves charged with curbing Stokes tomorrow, as Fenlon revealed the pairing had done so well together they were keeping a fit-again James McPake out of the team. Danny Handling is back in the squad after injury but unlikely to start, while Sam Stanton is expected to be out of action for several weeks after injuring a hip in training.