During my time supporting Sunderland AFC, I have witnessed and experienced numerous instances of footballers who came close to making it big. Many of these players had the talent to reach the highest levels of football but ultimately lacked the mental strength to fulfill their potential.
Regrettably, Sunderland has been known for having quite a few of these footballers who couldn’t fully realize their abilities, despite their evident talent. Today, we take a look back at the career of Anthony Stokes - a striker with undeniable potential but who never quite reached the heights expected of him.
Stokes experienced an early peak in his career. Having emerged from the renowned Arsenal academy, the Dubliner was sent on loan to Falkirk at the young age of 18, where he impressively scored many goals between August and January in 2006.
His 14 goals in 16 games made him a highly sought-after player across England. Premier League clubs like Charlton Athletic, Sunderland, and Glasgow Celtic were all strongly linked with the striker during the January transfer window.
It seemed that Sunderland’s manager, Roy Keane, played a significant role in persuading the striker to join us for £2 million in January 2007.
Sadly, Stokes’ off-field behavior had a severe impact on his performances on the pitch. The Irishman had a penchant for drinking and going out at night, which evidently frustrated Keane, who had great faith in his abilities.
Occurrences like the well-known incident during an away match with Barnsley, where Stokes, along with Marton Fulop and Tobias Hysen, missed the team bus, certainly did not help his case. Keane emphasized after the game that he was setting high standards for the team.
But it was time for me to put my foot down. The players are fine with that. It’s a serious game, we should be in the Premiership and that’s what I’m trying to do. All this stuff, be it preparation or training, we’re trying to give them a chance to do that.
I’m trying to change the mentality of a lot of things at Sunderland, be it a yo-yo club, where you feel you could be late for training or not train hard all the time; be it getting two or three weeks out of a week-long injury, taking days off left, right and centre. I had these vibes when I got the job. We needed to remember what this club is about. No good talking about where it should be. Judge people by actions, not intentions.
During his initial months at the club, Stokes managed to score only twice, with goals against Plymouth and Luton Town. Despite his early lack of scoring prowess, Keane decided to include him in the starting lineup for the club’s first Premier League match against Spurs in the 2007-08 season, alongside another Irishman, Daryl Murphy.
His time in the Premier League is largely remembered for his crucial last-minute winner against Derby County, where Stokes managed to bundle in a last-gasp goal in a bottom-of-the-table clash. At that moment, the victory was absolutely vital for the team, as they were going through a rough patch.
Regrettably, it turned out to be his only goal for Sunderland in the Premier League. Despite possessing all the ability, the Dubliner simply couldn’t overcome his personal struggles off the pitch. Keane made this abundantly clear after Stokes scored the winner against Derby.
He’s a young man who can go as far as he wants. He could be a top, top player or he could be playing non-League in four years’ time.
He’s got to avoid the pitfalls.
When asked what his biggest pitfalls were, Keane responded “the Glass Spider nightclub”!
After struggling to make the breakthrough with us, Stokes left Sunderland for new pastures taking in spells in Scotland at Hibernian and Celtic where he was closer to fulfilling his ability. His six years at Celtic were his most successful period scoring 58 goals in 135 games.
After his time in Scotland, it was an unfortunate downward spiral for Stokes where off-the-field issues and short spells at many clubs led to him being clubless since last year.