IF NEIL Lennon’s concern ahead of Saturday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final in Paisley was that Celtic’s season could meander into a meaningless last couple of months, it is not an issue which was ever going to apply to Anthony Stokes.
St Mirren 1 - 2 Celtic
SCORERS: St Mirren - Goncalves (13); Celtic - Ledley (5), Stokes (21)
Irrespective of how quickly Celtic clinch the SPL title or whether they extend their campaign competitively to the Scottish Cup Final on 26 May, Stokes is a man for whom every game carries huge significance.
The Irish striker’s contract is up for renewal in the summer with Celtic yet to decide if they will exercise their option to extend it for at least another year. Having missed almost six months of this season because of a serious ankle injury, Stokes is now trying to make up for lost time in a bid to earn himself a longer-term future at the club.
His winning goal against St Mirren on Saturday was his fourth since returning to action at the end of January, the kind of return which will be required for Lennon and the Celtic board to keep him on board.
The 24-year-old is at liberty to speak to other clubs as his contract runs down, but he insists that his sole focus is on staying with the Scottish champions.
“I’ve no intention of speaking to anyone else whatsoever,” said Stokes. “I’m happy here and I’m happy in Glasgow. I’m enjoying my football, it’s been a long few months out and I’m just delighted to be back in the team contributing goals.
“I just love the club. Playing every week is all I want. Since I’ve come here from Hibs three years ago, I’ve played the majority of games week in, week out when I’ve been fit. This has been a very hard season with a major injury but I think I’ve bounced back in the right way and got myself back in the team and scored goals. That’s all I can really do.
“Listen, if there wasn’t an offer (of a new contract) I’d move on. That’s football. It happens to managers every week and it’s the same with players. I wouldn’t let it affect me. I’d be disappointed obviously, because over the last two or three years I’ve contributed to the team.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can to finish this season off as well as possible. I treat every game the same, I don’t try harder in certain games or because my contract is running out in a couple of months.”
The most frustrating aspect of Stokes’ injury absence was that it coincided with Celtic’s memorable Champions League group stage campaign. His only taste of the tournament was as a substitute in the home leg of the third round qualifier against HJK Helsinki last August, shortly before he sustained the ankle damage.
As a result, playing in Wednesday night’s last 16, second-leg assignment against Juventus in Turin would mean a great deal to Stokes, regardless of Celtic’s apparently hopeless 3-0 deficit from the home fixture.
“It would be nice to play in this one,” he added. “It was hard to watch the lads in the Champions League when I was injured, although I was delighted for them and for the club.
“I’ve been lucky enough throughout my career in terms of injuries, but the first major one I’ve had came at a bad time with all those big games in Europe. We are up against it going out to Turin, we all know that. We’ve nothing to lose at this stage, so we’ll just go out and play as well as we possibly can.
“I don’t think we have anything to prove out there. We performed really well in the home leg and were unlucky to a certain extent. The team have been excellent in Europe this season and proved a lot of people wrong by getting out of the group stage.”
In an absorbing and vibrant domestic cup tie on Saturday, Stokes made what proved to be the decisive contribution after just 21 minutes. Celtic had taken a fifth minute lead, Joe Ledley glancing in a close-range header from James Forrest’s excellent cross, before St Mirren levelled just eight minutes later through Esmael Goncalves.
The Portuguese striker, so influential in his team’s League Cup semi-final success against Celtic at the end of January, seized on Emilio Izaguirre’s almost comically inept attempt to clear a John McGinn cross and nodded the ball in from almost on the goal-line. The theme of weak defending at crosses was maintained when Stokes grabbed what proved to be the winner, drifting off his marker as Forrest worked a short corner routine on the right with Gary Hooper and heading in the winger’s pinpoint delivery at the back post.
It was a source of exultant celebration from manager Lennon, in pumped-up mood from the start on Saturday and who gave most of his players, Stokes included, regular earfuls of advice as he prowled around his technical area.
“It goes in one ear and out of the other, to be honest,” smiled Stokes. “There are plenty of fans giving me abuse, so the manager just adds to it! But you are just focusing on the game really.”
St Mirren, grateful to Craig Samson for turning a Hooper shot against the crossbar to keep them in contention in the second half, made spirited efforts to at least force a replay.
It required a magnificent one-handed save from Fraser Forster to keep out former Celtic midfielder Graham Carey’s sweetly struck free-kick in the closing stages. “I thought it was in as soon as I hit it,” admitted Carey. “I was almost celebrating before he got a hand to it. That’s why he is at a top football club, he makes saves like that and helps them get the results they need.
“All in all, Celtic probably deserved it, although we really tried to take the game to them in the second half and were a little unlucky not to get a replay.”
St Mirren at least have the considerable consolation of a Hampden final date in the League Cup to look forward to later this month. For Celtic, the prospect of a first championship and Scottish Cup double under Lennon’s stewardship remains very much alive.