From Arsenal unknown to Keane's golden shot, Anthony Stokes has world at his feet

An 18-year-old's scoring spree led to Sunderland pipping boyhood idols Celtic for his signature

The honour of being the leading marksman in Scotand's top division since 1998 has been shared among only four players: the incomparable Henrik Larsson (five times), Mark Viduka, John Hartson and Kris Boyd, whose 32 league goals for Kilmarnock and Rangers last season came in at a ratio of 0.88 goals per game.

Anthony Stokes is still 18, but in 16 league games on loan at Falkirk from Arsenal before Christmas, he scored 14 SPL goals ­ at a ratio of 0.875 a game ­ and two more in two CIS Cup games. He remains the SPL's top scorer this season, and had he stayed he might have held on to the mantle.

Plenty of higher-profile forwards have struggled to hit such heights north of the border, let alone in their teens.

The spree that rocketed Stokes to stardom ­ and now Sunderland ­ had Falkirk's manager, John "Yogi" Hughes, struggling for superlatives.

"The best Christmas present I could have," he added, of the now forlorn hope that Stokes' loan spell would stretch in 2007.

Stokes scored his first senior goal on 19 September in the CIS Cup at Inverness, but it was what happened between 14 October and 7 November that has changed his life: one goal in the league against St Mirren, then two at Inverness, hat-tricks against Dundee United and Dunfermline (the first back-to-back hat-tricks in the SPL) and then a goal against Celtic in the CIS Cup quarter-finals. Falkirk won on penalties.

Stokes scored in consecutive games in late November (also getting sent off against Motherwell for diving), and then, in his last match, after four blanks, hit a third hat-trick, against Inverness on 30 December.

He is hugely promising, blessed with pace, versatility (he can play up front or in midfield) and clinical finishing with both feet. He can also showboat, for better or worse. Against St Mirren in October, Falkirk won a last-minute close-range free-kick with the score at 1-1. Everyone in the ground expected Stokes to blast it but he attempted an extraordinary chip, which went just past the top corner. "The guy is a maverick, that's just his style of playing," Hughes said. "If it had come off it would have grabbed all the headlines and that's the kind of thing he tries in training." Against Dunfermline, he scored his hat-trick with his "weaker" left foot. He also wound up the opposition by playing keepy-uppy during the match. Up to 10 times. Hughes, in a training exercise, clattered Stokes for his exuberance.

If there are other reservations, then they come in analysis of who Stokes has scored against. Apart from Celtic (in the CIS Cup), all his goals in Scotland came against the current bottom six.

So while prolific with Falkirk, it is premature to say that he comes with a guarantee at the highest level. Evidently Arsène Wenger, albeit with a rich crop of experienced forwards, does not see him as a Premiership regular in the near future. Why, otherwise, would he let him leave after three years of development?

For Roy Keane, the question is academic. "We've beaten off competition from a number of high-profile clubs for someone who is a good, young player who can hopefully help us in our push for promotion," he said yesterday. Sunderland are three points off the play-off places.

It is believed Stokes will earn a basic wage of £14,000-plus a week. Money is relevant because the evidence suggests it was that, more than any other factor, that dictated where Stokes went.

"Anthony didn't sleep the night after learning that Celtic had an offer accepted [last week]. We thought it was a done deal," the player's father and advisor, John, said on Sunday. "He loves Celtic and was prepared to accept less money to play for them. When he gets up in the morning he listens to Celtic songs and by the time he goes to bed at night he's watched Celtic videos." Yet there was only so much less money he was willing to accept. It is understood Celtic offered a deal worth " only" £8,000 a week. So Celtic lost out, as did Charlton, whom Stokes had decided to join (on £14,000 a week) before Keane, his hero, made a last-minute intervention.

Stokes joined Arsenal at 15 from Shelbourne but never started a game for the Gunners in any competition. Last summer, he trained with Sunderland, then still managed by Niall Quinn, but Quinn opted against a loan move. Instead, Arsenal's head of youth development, Liam Brady, sent the player to Falkirk and into the care of his friend Hughes.

In November, Stokes said: "I'm an Arsenal player so my main aspiration is to get into the first team." Keane and Sunderland will be hoping they reap the benefits of Stokes' various dreams ­ at Celtic, Arsenal and elsewhere ­ not coming to fruition.

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