ANTHONY Stokes was the future. He was 18, had scored 16 goals in 18 games and was faster, better and more skilful than anyone else in the Falkirk team he was transforming. No surprise then that he had his pick of clubs to choose from: Celtic, Sunderland or then Premier League side Charlton.
And it was no surprise that Roy Keane persuaded the Sunderland board, a collection of Irish businessmen who had dreams in their head and money in their pockets, to write a cheque for £2million. This kid was going to be a star.
But that was then. Now, he is 27 and back at Hibs, the club who had rescued him once before when he came back from England having scored just six goals in 64 games (32 of those were as a sub) for Sunderland, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace. Yet it didn’t seem to matter. Time was on his side. He could come back.
And he did. Well, sort of. Having flourished at Hibs, Celtic called. He answered. He succeeded, to an extent, scoring goals and winning trophies, but when the biggest games came around, he was rarely picked.
Meanwhile, the clock kept on ticking. He wasn’t 18 anymore.
“As a striker you are judged on goals and I will be judged on that between now and the end of the season,” he said on Saturday after scoring on his second debut for Hibs in their Scottish League Cup semi-final win. Yet part of Stokes’ problem is that he hasn’t been judged on goals. Other, more significant things, have got in the way.
For Roy Keane, it was the Dubliner’s recurring presence in the Glass Spider nightclub in Sunderland which irked him. Barred from there, Stokes was also left behind for an away day in Barnsley when he turned up late for the team bus.
Other managers also got annoyed – Don Givens, the former Irish Under 21 manager, fumed when Stokes failed to turn up for a friendly against Germany. Equally displeased was Giovanni Trapattoni for Stokes’ decision not to accept the invitation to meet up with his squad for a 2011 trip to Macedonia because of tiredness.
In 2009, John Hughes, the manager he thrived most under, punished him after a nightclub incident. Five years on, another nightclub in another city brought another incident, when Stokes was charged for assault against Anthony Bradley, an Elvis impersonator. That case has been adjourned.
The case against Stokes, the player, is firstly that he has never lived up to the hype on the field but secondly that he has generated so much controversy off it. In 2012 he was strongly criticised for attending a fundraiser for Alan Ryan, a deceased member of the Real IRA.
Neil Lennon didn’t shy away from having words with him about that, while Lennon’s successor, Ronny Deila, saw him omitted from the match day squad to play Inter Milan in the Europa League after he returned late from a weekend away.
Early into this season, Deila had completely lost faith in the player, leaving him out of his team from August 22 onwards, before things came to a head in December, when Stokes – after failing to make the match day squad – tweeted: “Buzzing to be brought all the way up to Inverness with the team to sit in the stands today, lovely weather for it too.”
A subsequent apology didn’t stop Deila fining him and didn’t stop others asking Deila if Stokes’ tweeting behaviour was any worse than what Kris Commons did against Molde, when the winger threw his toys out of the pram after being substituted, or if it compared with Leigh Griffiths’ admission of singing a racist song. Was Deila being fair?
“Why would you say that?” Deila replied. “How can I look the players in the eyes if I am unfair? You know I have to have respect among the boys. If I treat people differently, there would be problems and I would never do that.
“If everything is acceptable what will the next thing be? It will never stop. So sometimes you have to do something. I’m very open-minded. Many players, staff and myself have made mistakes and I have no problem with forgiving people. That’s maybe my biggest strength: that I forgive. If players are afraid to have an opinion or to do something because I’m going to punish them hard, they will never improve.”
Later, on the same theme, the Norwegian made a valid point. “Players have to learn from their experiences.”
And therein lies the point. Stokes is now at an age where he has to start learning or people will stop caring. At 27, he has just about got enough time to get his career back on track, this loan move to Hibs clearly being his last chance.
“There’s plenty more to come from Anthony Stokes,” said his manager, Alan Stubbs, after Saturday’s game. “We were wanting to get him on the pitch at some point, but we have to be mindful that we have got him for three or four months, not three or four weeks, so we want him to be fit for that length of time and we will slowly build him up.”
Stokes, though, wants things to happen fast. He is eyeing a place in Ireland’s European Championship squad, and with a year left on his Celtic contract, he hasn’t given up hope of playing again for the Scottish champions.
“You always have to keep positive. I have every intention of going back to Celtic next year and trying to get into the team,” he said. “It is the club that I want to stay at. I am thinking about Celtic.”
For many of us, we’re thinking of what Keane said about him seven years ago. “He can go as far as he wants and be a top player; or he could be playing non-league football in four or five years’ time.”
The Scottish Championship is a sizeable step above non-League football yet too many steps below where he could have been. While the sun hasn’t died on his career just yet, the shadows are beginning to fall.