Celtic's Stokes ready to rest and be thankful

IT WAS more than nine months ago that Celtic got the ball-rolling on season 2013-14.

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Stokes is looking forward to a break so he can hit top form again next season for Celtic
Stokes is looking forward to a break so he can hit top form again next season for Celtic

The 3-0 victory over Cliftonville in their opening Champions League qualifier on July 17 has been followed by a further 48 matches in four different competitions.

They have achieved their two main objectives, short-term, to qualify for the group stage of Europe's elite club competition, and, long-term, to defend their league championship which will send them back on the road to another early start next term.

As they view the finishing line to this marathon season, it will be a sobering thought to everyone at Parkhead that the draw for the second qualifying round of the Champions League takes place two months tomorrow.

Which is another reason to double check all the plans are made for the down time the players and management will enjoy when the final whistle is blown three weeks on Sunday on what has been a roller-coaster campaign.

"It is a long season for us when you consider how early we come back to begin pre- season training and be ready to play in the Champions League qualifiers," mused Anthony Stokes, who has now played 43 games for the Hoops, plus four internationals with the Republic of Ireland.

That equals the busiest-ever season in his nine-year senior career, which occurred two campaigns ago.

Stokes is sure to set a new 'personal best' with four more games of this term to come, so is well placed to discuss how exhausting life has become for players who are now looking at their job as rolling 12-month shifts.

"The boys down south get a much longer break than us," said the 25-year-old. "Even the boys in the Championship get a bit longer.

"With the qualifiers, we are back in earlier than everyone else [June 24, to be precise], and, for the last two seasons, we have only had three weeks off each summer.

"But, we are well paid, and it is the job you want as a kid, so you can't really complain too much and just look forward to starting the season again."

Having scored another wonder goal in the weekend draw against Motherwell to take him to 16 - and a step closer to his target of 20 - Stokes is far from running on empty.

However, he is already relishing the opportunity to enjoy some quality time with his family.

"It has been a long season with a lot of games," he reflected.

"And it is not over yet because there are international fixtures which I hope to be involved in as well.

"But, taking them aside, I will just try to rest and get ready to go again next season.

"I will spend the break away from football with my missus and our kid.

"I'll try to relax, get back to Dublin, and just get the feet up and recharge."

Before then, of course, there is the not-insignificant matter of four more SPFL Premiership fixtures to fulfil.

Neil Lennon made it clear before kick-off at Fir Park, and even more forcefully at half-time as they trailed 2-1 to Stuart McCall's side, that standards can't drop and that his Celtic players must match their opponents for commitment.

"Of course that is what we aim to do," said Stokes.

"Listen, we are not just going to go out and throw away games or points.

"We have got our own pride on the line, and we want to play well every time we go out there.

"The fans deserve to see us putting in a performance every time we pull on that jersey.

"So, although we have already won the championship, for us there is still plenty to play for.

"Obviously, with the other teams still going for Europa League places, and finishing positions, we want to keep the integrity in the league."

Matching the best-ever points tally for the top division is now beyond Celtic - the draw at Motherwell means they can't match the Hoops side of 2001-02 who got 103 - but they are still desperate to reach 100 points.

Stokes confirmed: "It would be a nice ton to get.

"It was all about winning the league, really. But, we want to do it in as much style as we possibly can.

"Which is why the pride is there to try and win every game between now and the end of the season because it is expected of you as a Celtic player."

Personal targets are another motivating factor for the Premiership champions.

And, while Stokes wants to hit 20 goals again, he has long-since accepted Kris Commons is going to be crowned top scorer for Celtic this campaign.

The goalden-Bhoy proved he is not infallible, however, when he had his spot kick saved by Gunnar Nielsen on Saturday in the 3-3 Fir Park stalemate, and Stokes admitted: "I expected Kris to score.

"But he couldn't have done much more than he did. He hit the penalty with plenty of pace, low into the corner.

"The keeper just gambled really early and got a strong hand to it. It was a great save and not a badly taken penalty whatsoever."

It leaves Commons on 28 for the season, but Stokes is backing him to reach 30 for the first time in the 30-year-old's career.

"I would not put it past him, the way he has been scoring," said the Republic of Ireland striker.

"You never know what is going to happen in the last four games.

"But, Kris played well again at the weekend, even though he didn't score."

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