It’s an occupational hazard of playing for the Old Firm that, when one half is in the ascendancy, it is open season on the other side.
Anthony Stokes knows what is said about him and his team-mates and -- surprise, surprise -- he sat at Lennoxtown yesterday and dismissed it as unfair and inaccurate.
As a headstrong, independent Dubliner, Stokes never comes across as a fragile wallflower and, as far as he was concerned, the rest of the Celtic players couldn’t be accused of being timid either.
Instead of holding up last season’s second place in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League as proof that Rangers held qualities which Celtic did not, Stokes insisted that the fact his team was clear at the top with only four matches left showed how strong and competitive they had been.
They were eventually overtaken by Rangers only because of a ruinous one-off defeat at Caledonian Thistle, he said, rather than any actual gulf in quality between the two halves of the Old Firm.
“I wouldn’t agree that Rangers are mentally or physically stronger,” he said. “Last year with four games to go we were in pole position but we threw it away with a bad performance. I don’t think we put ourselves in a position to win the league with only four games to go by being mentally weak. I think it was just a bad performance on the night in Inverness and ultimately we paid for that.
“People say that the team falls short on big occasions, but look at our games against Rangers last season. There aren’t many people who can tell me we weren’t the better team in the head-to-heads. We probably just didn’t play as well as we possibly could against other teams and ultimately the game against Inverness killed us. But we’ve learned from that and we’ll be stronger this year.
“Winning the league is the priority in everyone’s mind this year. In the cup game at Hibs we showed spirit to come back and we played excellent football in the second half. But we need to start games better and not put ourselves under pressure.”
It would be an understatement to say Celtic have not shown league-winning form so far this season. Away from home, they have conceded too many goals and dropped too many points, and at Parkhead they have been beaten by St Johnstone.
All of that has contributed to them sitting third in the table, 10 points adrift of Rangers and one behind Motherwell with a game in hand to both.
Stokes claimed that he felt the gap between the leaders was really only seven points because of that unplayed fixture at home to Dunfermline, although that sounded a little too confident for a player in a team who have won only one of their last six away games before defeating Hibs in Edinburgh on Wednesday.
The Easter Road victory became convincing, with Stokes joining Gary Hooper and James Forrest, who managed a double, in scoring their second-half goals in a 4-1 quarter-final win in the Scottish Communities League Cup.
Celtic may be trailing in the championship, but they remain the only club in the country with a realistic chance of winning the treble.
Celtic are into the last four with Kilmarnock, Falkirk and Ayr United and the draw is next Tuesday. “We’ve put ourselves in a great position in that cup,” said Stokes. “But we know it’s not going to be easy. We’ve seen how many lower-division clubs have beaten SPL clubs this year, so no matter who we come up against, we will have to be on our game.”
Stokes revealed that he rebuked Forrest for being wasteful in the first half against Hibs before the 20-year-old came alive to score their first two in the second period. “He’s been outstanding for us,” he said. “I had a bit of a go at him in the first half because he gave the ball away once or twice, but look at him in the second half. Once he gets in the zone and he’s playing well it’s so hard to stop him. Sometimes you look at wingers and they’re great individual players but they’re not putting balls into the box. But he’s the whole package, he’s creating goals, he’s scoring goals and he gave the team a great lift.”
Forrest’s double took his total for the season to six; Stokes needed his subsequent header to bring his own figure to the same number. The 23-year-old scored 20 last season, his first for Celtic. “I’ve learned from a lot of mistakes I made and I’ve got a bit more experience now.”
Stokes last played for the Republic of Ireland in the final minutes of a March friendly against Uruguay. Since then, manager Giovanni Trapattoni has been cool towards him, privately doubting his commitment because he declared himself unavailable for their Carling Nations Cup ties in May.
“People have questioned me, but Trapattoni’s opinion is the only one I’m bothered about. Ireland are in the Euro 2012 play-offs [v Estonia next month] and it’d be brilliant to qualify. If I could get myself back in the squad, I’d be one of the happiest people around.”