ANTHONY STOKES faces the most important four months of his career as he fights to convince Celtic he is worth a new contract.
A combination of a serious ankle injury and his social activities while in rehab – which Neil Lennon and Peter Lawwell considered damaged the Hoops' reputation – put securing a new deal to replace the one which runs out in the summer in jeopardy.
The road to recovery and redemption is a long one. But the 24-year-old striker took a major step in midweek when he came off the bench to bag his first goal of the season in the 4-1 rout of Kilmarnock.
Now Stokes is desperate to get his first start since August, and this weekend's Scottish Cup tie against Raith Rovers would appear to offer the perfect opportunity.
However, Lennon wants the Republic of Ireland internationalist to cool his jets.
The manager has taken him aside and told him he has nothing to prove in terms of his ability, and that he will be given a part to play as Celtic home in on the business end of the season.
"I am not sure if Stokesy is ready to start this weekend," said Lennon, before quickly adding, "though he did look more like himself on Wednesday night.
"The game was stretched and we felt it was a good time to bring him on. He will feel he is ready to play but we have plenty of football between now and the end of the season.
"We feel he has plenty to contribute but we don't want to rush him back because he was out for such a long time."
Lennon knows it will be tough to convince Stokes it is in his best interests to ease himself back in, but he is looking long term.
He said: "Getting a goal against Kilmarnock will give him a boost. But it wasn't just the fact he scored and set up another. His performance was the total opposite to what he showed when he came on against St Mirren at Hampden last weekend.
"Then he was really anxious to do well. But we told him afterwards, 'You do not need to prove to us how good you are, just play your natural way with Gary Hooper'.
"He did that on Wednesday, and I also thought Tony Watt was great when he came on. Like Stokesy, he is a goal threat, and we need another goal threat than just Gary.
"Kris Commons has goals in him as well, although he has probably not scored as many as he would have liked so far."
Indeed, Commons was frustrated to hit the bar twice against Killie, and his disappointment at not getting on the scoresheet was matched by his pal Hooper.
However, this did not prevent Celtic making it four goals at Parkhead for the third game in a row. What would they give to extend this sequence when they play their next match there, against Juventus on February 12.
It was the perfect response to the defeat in the League Cup semi-final and extended Celtic's title lead to 15 points.
But Lennon was still not completely satisfied and explained: "We've now scored a dozen goals in our three SPL games since the break, against Hearts, Dundee United and Kilmarnock.
"But there was still something wrong with that end of the park on Wednesday night.
"I got really frustrated with them at times because we could have scored a lot more, it was not half-chances we missed.
"But I know what Gary and Kris bring to the team. I felt I needed more of a goal threat, and I got that with them and Georgios Samaras. None of the three of them scored, but their contribution to our win was great, nevertheless."
Having your front three failing to find the target is not a problem when you have a right- back who can pitch in with a double, as Adam Matthews did – to all-round surprise.
Lennon smiled when he reflected: "They were two terrific goals from Adam. I don't know what he was doing in the six-yard box to get the second goal, but his first one gave him a real lift. He was a little tentative in his play in the first half, and we told him just to relax.
"I could see there was a nervousness about some of them on Wednesday, which was understandable after Hampden, but they overcame that.
"Against Kilmarnock, they were in a no-win situation. They were expected to get the victory, and we knew we would not get any credit for it. There's just an acceptance of it by others.
"But it spoke volumes for my players to play they way did after the weekend."