Anthony Stokes was a more talented footballer than Robbie Keane during his formative years, according to a leading Irish schoolboy coach.
John Bolger, who has spent more than 20 years helping to develop fledgling players at clubs in the Dublin District Schoolboy League, spoke to Irish website the42.ie about a handful of players who made the step up from the League of Ireland and abroad - including Stokes; former Hibs striker Eoin Doyle; ex-Celtic and Hibs midfielder Richie Towell; Gavin Gunning, who had two spells with Dundee United and Motherwell, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s Aaron Doran.
Bolger started off with Kilnamanagh in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght, before joining Cherry Orchard - former club of Conor Sammon, Jonny Hayes, Willo Flood and Jon Daly. After six years with the Ballyfermot side, Bolger joined Shelbourne, where he took over an Under-11s team packed with talented youngsters including Stokes and Doyle.
Hailing the team as the “best side I’ve ever been involved with,” Bolger added: “They were unbeaten in the league for five years.”
Stokes was the star player in the side, and by the age of 15 had joined Arsenal, but despite being highly-rated by Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, and catching the eye during a loan spell at Falkirk, Stokes made just one first team appearance before joining Sunderland for £2 million in 2007.
• READ MORE - Anthony Stokes had enough chances at Hibs, says Neil Lennon
He had loan spells at Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, before joining Hibs and reuniting with John Hughes, who had been his manager at Falkirk.
A six-year stint at Celtic followed, as well as two more spells with Hibs and a brief period at Blackburn Rovers.
The 29-year-old is currently at Greek outfit Apollon Smyrni but despite his promise as a youth, has been capped just nine times by the Republic of Ireland.
“Stokesy was the most talented teenager to come out of this country - absolutely,” Bolger told the42.ie website.
“He obviously didn’t achieve anywhere near as much as Robbie Keane, but he was a more talented player. He had two great feet, he was a superb header of the ball and he had a brilliant football brain too.”
Claiming that Stokes netted between 50 and 60 goals every season as a schoolboy, Bolger added: “There are so many boxes you have to tick. It’s not about just having [the skill], you’ve got to have that fire in your belly.
“You have to want to be a footballer, be prepared to listen, and take things on board.”
Stokes, who joined Hibs for a third spell last summer, left Hibs by mutual consent in January after twice falling foul of manager Neil Lennon.
Speaking after his exit, Lennon said: “There is a line that I won’t tolerate, and Anthony had plenty of chances not to cross that line.
“We’ve been saying for years [that he’s a talented player], and it’s a shame, but I can’t keep rapping him on the knuckles and saying it’s all right.”
Stokes has played three matches for Apollon Smyrni, but is yet to score. The Athens-based side currently sit second bottom of the Greek top flight.
• READ MORE - Ex-Hibs and Celtic striker Anthony Stokes agrees deal to join Greek club Apollon Smyrni