Twenty is plenty for Stokes at Celtic

HOW many goals is that you have scored so far this season?

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Scott Brown and fellow Celtic goalscorer Kris Commons celebrate with Anthony Stokes, centre, after he netted against Dundee United
Scott Brown and fellow Celtic goalscorer Kris Commons celebrate with Anthony Stokes, centre, after he netted against Dundee United

It appeared to be an innocent question put to Anthony Stokes as he reflected on adding another in the 2-0 win over Dundee United at the weekend.

The answer was delayed long enough for the questioner to suggest it was perhaps his 13th of the campaign.

Faster than he can turn and shoot for the net, Stokes interjected, "No, it's 15".

It was just another little, but important, reminder of how much store strikers put in their stats.

They know, whatever else they may be contributing to a game, be it running, creating space or providing assists - all of which Stokes is doing in spades this season - it is the number of goals they have scored which will be their measurement.

Which is why, no matter how much Neil Lennon praises Stokes for stepping into the breach since Gary Hooper left - albeit Kris Commons has linked with him to become top scorer - and going up yet another gear with the arrival of Leigh Griffiths in January as a strike partner, the 25-year-old Irishman is fixated by the number of times he hits the net.

He should be pleased, therefore, to be just one away from doubling his tally for all of last season, and with five more games in which to plunder even more.

But Stokes considers last term to be a bit of a non-event, given he missed more than half of it sidelined with an ankle injury picked up right at the start.

It was the reason his goal haul was a meagre eight, the poorest by far in any season he has spent in Scotland at Falkirk, Hibs or the Hoops.

Twenty is always the magic number for strikers, especially those playing for Celtic, and it's the target defined by Stokes for this year.

He is doing his best to be philosophical, and insisted: "There have been good performances this season and the goals have not been there.

"But I am not too disappointed at the minute. I've scored two or three in the last couple of games (it's actually four in four), so I'm happy enough with my form."

However, the real source of his joy is that he is banging in the goals.

Lennon is every bit as pleased to see this, having handed the hitman a new contract earlier this season.

That's often the cue for players to take their foot off the gas.

Not so Stokes, and Lennon said: "He's a player who has really improved and is now getting the weight of goals that he always wants.

"I've been really pleased since the turn of the year with the consistency of his game.

"He is getting better, and his link-up play with Kris has been a real asset to us this season."

Improving players is Lennon's daily mission, which must work in tandem with winning trophies.

Stokes is happy to be ticking both boxes, and reckons he is not alone in a squad which, with an average age of 25 - which the Republic of Ireland international just happens to be - has time on its side.

"We are a very young squad, and we're only going to improve," said Stokes.

"I know that from my own experience. I have been here three or four years now, and I feel I have improved.

"There are boys who are only just in the door. It's their first season here, and I am sure being at a club like this will bring them on as footballers."

Winning championships accelerates this process as the feel-good factor is an important component of any improvement.

"I think winning championships breeds confidence," said the man who has just picked up his third in a row.

"And, playing for a club of the stature of Celtic will help bring them on, as well."

The one cloud on the Hoops horizon is the fact they are on the outside looking in as this weekend's William Hill Scottish Cup semi-finals take place.

Everyone had hoped for another cup-final climax to the campaign, a repeat of last year when they added the trophy to their league title with an emphatic victory over Hibs.

"Of course, we are all disappointed we are out of the cup," admitted Stokes. "But we can't focus on that now. It's done.

"We can only work towards winning every game between now and the end of the season, and, obviously, trying to improve for next year."

The final five games will be treated very seriously as Celtic chase 100 points.

They confirmed with the manner of their victory over Dundee United at the weekend that any fears they had eased into the comfort zone were ill-founded.

Sure, the draw with Ross County in the first match after they had clinched the title was a poor performance.

But the bubbles from the celebration champagne are now out of the system, and it's back to football with a fizz, as they showed at Tannadice.

"We were a little bit flat when we played Ross County a few days after we had won the title," conceded Stokes. "But that can happen.

"Look at teams all over the place who have won titles early. It happens regularly."

Even mighty Bayern Munich succumbed to this truism.

Stokes added: "Look, we showed at Tannadice we have got it out of our system and are back playing well.

"People say there isn't much to play for. But, there is. There is pride, and the fans are coming out to watch us."

Stokes has another reason to keep his form high.

The Republic play Turkey in Dublin then Italy in London at the end of May. And, having earned his place back in the squad now managed by Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane, he's not about to slip out of the picture.

"It's something I want to be involved in," he said of the friendlies.

"It's been great to be back in the Irish set-up for the last while, and I'm loving being away with them.

"Hopefully, I can keep my club form up and it might give me a chance to be selected."

With the Euro Championship qualifiers beginning in the autumn, Stokes knows this is the time to bed yourself in.

And the prospect of lining up against Scotland is already making him smile, even if through gritted teeth.

"There have been a few people trying to get me going about it," he explained, politely omitting the name of wind-up master Scott Brown.

Football

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