Simon Turnbull: Stokes and the McCoist parallel
Keane's Sunderland the only destination for a striker who can make history
Sunday 14 January 2007
Sunderland have been this way before, of course. Back in the summer of 1981, in the days when men were men and the First Division was the top English League to play in, the Wearside club caused quite a stir by paying what was described as "big money" for a teenage striker who had been banging in the goals for one of the lesser-light teams in Scotland. His name? Ask one of the captains on A Question Of Sport.
Yes, Anthony Stokes will be doing very nicely, thank you, if he gets as far in football and in life as Alistair Murdoch McCoist, the fresh-faced Scot who signed for Sunderland from St Johnstone for £350,000, a month short of his 19th birthday. Not that Ally McCoist, in his time on Wearside, succeeded in living up to the great expectations that came with the price tag and barrage of goals he had plundered for St Johnstone.
In his first season with Sunderland the young McCoist scored just twice. In his second he got six - before moving back north of the border for a knocked-down £185,000 and proceeding to establish himself as the most prolific goalscorer in Rangers' history.
There are several striking similarities between the McCoist who arrived at Roker Park in August 1981 and the Stokes who took his first bow as a Sunderland player at the Stadium of Light yesterday. Both commanded substantial fees (McCoist £350,000; Stokes an initial £1 million, with the potential for a further £1m to follow). Both were 18. Both were prolific goalscorers in Scotland (McCoist bagged 22 for St Johnstone in the 1980-81 season, including two hat-tricks against Rangers; Stokes netted 16 in 18 games on loan from Arsenal to Falkirk, including the first back-to-back hat-tricks in Scottish Premier League history). Both were to make their Sunderland debuts against Ipswich. And both had highlights in their hair.
There are, however, some notable differences. McCoist combined playing for St John-stone with a job working for the Overseas Development Office. He found the switch to life as a full-time professional footballer a difficult adjustment to make. Stokes is hardly a seasoned professional, but he has been an Arsenal academy and reserve team player since the age of 15.
The young Dubliner has also joined a Sunderland set-up which is going places under the management of Roy Keane and the chairmanship of Niall Quinn. McCoist played under Alan Durban in a Sunderland side drifting aimlessly in the lower reaches of the old First Division - as anaemic as the greatly unloved white-and-red pinstriped jerseys in which they played. That is one accusation unlikely to be levelled against any team managed by the full-blooded Keane.
"This is a club on the rise," said Stokes, explaining his decision to plump for Sunderland ahead of Charlton or Celtic. "Roy explained where he saw the club going and what he thought of me. I took all of that into consideration and thought it was the right place for me to develop.
"Roy sees Sunderland as a Premiership club. That's where he wants to be and that's where I want to play, so we're on the same lines there. We're not far off a play-off position, so hopefully this year or next year we'll get that opportunity."
It was an opportunity Stokes was never granted at Arsenal. His one first-team appearance came in the Carling Cup at Sunderland in October 2005, as a substitute for Arturo Lupoli. "I wouldn't say I played," he said. "I got two or three minutes."
Not that Stokes harbours any regrets about his time as a Gunner-in-reserve. "None at all," he insisted. "If you're looking to develop as a youngster, I think Arsenal's one of the best places in the world to be because of the style of football they play and what the coaching is like there.
"If you look at the amount of youngsters who have come from Arsenal and are playing first-team football elsewhere now it's quite high. So I'm happy with my decision to go to Arsenal and I'm happy that I've ended up here. I was given the option to go back to Arsenal from Falkirk but I think this is the right place for me. I might have had to sit tight and wait for a year or two at Arsenal but I'd rather play first-team football now and try to develop early in my career."
As Arsène Wenger remarked last week, there were seven good reasons why Stokes was going to struggle to get another first-team chance at Arsenal. They go by the names of Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor, Julio Baptista, Jérémie Aliadière, Nicklas Bendtner and Arturo Lupoli.
At Sunderland it is rather different. For all the progress they have made in the Championship under their fledgling manager, they have needed a natural goalscorer. "We're delighted to get Anthony," Keane reflected. "If you look at our games recently we've had lots of good possession; we've just been lacking something in the attacking third. Hopefully, Anthony will give us that something extra.
"The way we play and the way he plays, I think we're suited to him. I really believe this is the best move for him at this stage of his career. I feel this is the right club for him."
Is the price right, though - at £1m to £2m? "It's like anything else," Keane said. "If you want a nice meal, you have to pay the money. If you want a cheap meal, you go to the chippy."
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