Friday night confirmed where the Republic of Ireland’s and Anthony Stokes’ level is
The Celtic striker was once a source of hope but struggled to fulfil his potential like a lot of the international players
Onward then, with Anthony Stokes apparently at the wheel. If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought, it’s worth remembering that there was a time when we imagined that this is how it would all end up anyway. That come this point in his life – just turned 25 and with seven years a pro tucked away – Anthony Stokes would be a safeish bet as the Ireland centre-forward. He was the ‘Yeah, but . . .’ at the end of countless grim colloquies on the whole Steve Staunton caper.
It’s true. In the months after the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus in 2006, it was Stokes who offered up the sole flickering candle in the dark. Then an 18-year-old on loan from Arsenal, he knocked in two hat-tricks in a week for Falkirk in the SPL. Despite moving to Sunderland in the January window, his 14 goals in 16 games in Scotland meant he ended that season as the fourth highest scorer in the league. For context, Kris Boyd of Rangers topped the charts with 20 in 32.
On the back of it, Stokes found himself the latest and youngest of a species of Irish footballer that would propagate and flourish as the seasons rolled and the national side rolled over. Absentus Ameliorus – a hardy annual whose reputational growth spurts come in direct proportion to time spent outside the Ireland squad. He was 18 and he was a goalscorer who hadn’t yet had a chance to disappoint anyone. Nobody was stingy with their predictions.
By February 2007, he got his call-up. Out of respect for the victims, we’ll draw a discreet veil over the match itself (it was against San Marino, you may have heard about it at the time) but it’s worth lingering on that Ireland squad. Staunton named seven uncapped players – Stokes, Shane Long, Stephen Hunt, Darron Gibson, Andy Keogh, Stephen Quinn and Darren Randolph.
Quinn and Randolph didn’t get a game until well into Trap’s time but Long (41 caps), Hunt (39), Keogh (30) and Gibson (20) have all since had their say and a couple of them will again. As for Stokes, Friday night was his fifth cap. The idea that Keogh, who had just moved from Scunthorpe to Wolves for £600,000, would earn six times as many caps as Stokes was not one you’d have had many takers for in 2007.
You wouldn’t have believed a lot of things about Anthony Stokes’s next six and a half years back then. You wouldn’t have believed that the £2m Sunderland had just paid for him would be the last transfer fee he’d command. You wouldn’t have believed that he’d only score six goals in English football – and just one in the Premier League.
You certainly wouldn’t have believed that of all the paths a young Irish player could take at that time, Stokes would choose the one that deliberately antagonised his then club manager Roy Keane. After that solitary Premier League goal, Keane used his post-match press conference to warn his player against the perils of late-night partying.
“Stokes could be a top, top player in four or five years or he could be playing non-League,” said Keane. “He’ll go one way or the other, I’m sure. The obvious pitfall for him is The Glass Spider [local nightclub]. He’s got to be careful . . . As his manager, I’ve got a role to play but you can’t follow the modern player 24 hours a day.”
The ins and outs of his career since don’t make for great reading. By his 21st birthday, he’d played for different five clubs, each one a rung further down the football ladder. Heading back to Scotland to play for Hibs in 2009 unquestionably saved his career and his status as Ireland’s sole representative in the Champions League with Celtic this season is something at least.
But by now we know where Anthony Stokes’s level is. If we had any doubt, Friday night confirmed it. Whatever about the mistake for the first goal – worse errors have been far less heavily punished in this campaign – it was the way he missed his chances that told of a career that just hasn’t made enough out of the raw materials.
The thrash at Ciarán Clarke’s header as it dropped down from the crossbar was a moment of human panic. Ditto the lamp into the stands after he’d taken Glenn Whelan’s incredible pass out of defence wide of Manuel Neuer.
But the worst was the touch he took in front of goal when Séamie Coleman rifled a crisp ball across. He controlled the ball into exactly the wrong spot, narrowing Neuer’s angle for him without the keeper having to move. Seven years as a pro ought to have ironed out a kink like that by now.
We spend so much time in these post-mortems wailing about the lack of a proper infrastructure in the game here. And with good reason, obviously. But think back to the Anthony Stokes who was delivered to the professional game as an 18-year-old, the one who held his own in the same Arsenal youth team as Alex Song, Kieran Gibbs, Fabrice Muamba and Nicklas Bendtner. For all the institutional shortcomings, that kid made it to the start line in pretty good shape.
At a certain point, it must come down to professional footballers and their will or otherwise to make the best of themselves. If we keep laying the blame on stubborn managers and incompetent systems, it lets too many players off the hook.