Celtic cup exit opens door for Hibs loanee Anthony Stokes

Anthony Stokes, left, played a match-winning role against Morton in midweek to help keep Hibs' Championship title challenge alive. Picture Ross Parker/SNS Group
Anthony Stokes, left, played a match-winning role against Morton in midweek to help keep Hibs' Championship title challenge alive. Picture Ross Parker/SNS Group
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You can take Anthony Stokes out of Celtic but you can’t take Celtic out of Anthony Stokes. The Irishman is clearly determined to make his four-month loan spell at Hibernian count. Courtesy of the only goal in Tuesday’s contest away to Morton that keeps alive his current side’s Championship challenge he has netted twice in only 97 minutes on the pitch for Alan Stubbs’ side. 
Yet, Stokes’ allegiances mean he didn’t seek the ultimate from his spell at Easter Road at any cost.

The striker is in the curious position of having left a club which was pursuing a treble to all of a sudden find himself at the only Scottish team now capable of winning a title and the two national cups. The turnaround created by Celtic’s League Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Ross County on Sunday has opened up the possibility of Stokes playing in the final.

Yet, following Hibs’ semi-final success over St Johnstone on the Saturday, Stokes didn’t plonk himself in front of the telly on Sunday afternoon and will the Highland club to victory so that he would have the opportunity of claiming back-to-back winners’ medals in the competition that he helped Celtic win last year. It is human nature to want to play in any cup final but perhaps Stokes would consider it politically unwise to publicly admit wishing for an outcome that would prevent him 
being required to sit out a showpiece against his parent club. However, there was no trace of him being disingenuous in the manner in which he tackled the issue of whether he was happy Celtic lost in the semi-final.

“I’ve always been a Celtic fan and if I ever leave the club I’ll still be a Celtic fan, I’ll still be rooting for them. I wanted Celtic to win,” he said. “But it’s played into my hands now, hopefully. If I get my fitness and sharpness up and start performing on a more consistent basis, then it will hopefully give me a chance of playing in the final. But it’s all about the players who have been here – they’ve done the hard graft.”

Pressed as to whether he really “still wanted Celtic to win even though you’d miss out”, he snapped back: “You’re mixing my words. Listen, I always want Celtic to do well regardless, in every game they play. I’m a Celtic supporter, but it’s obviously difficult for me at the moment because I am at Hibs and my whole focus at the minute is on Hibs and to help them to do as well as they possibly can between now and the end of the season.”

That quest will take him to Tynecastle on Sunday as the two Edinburgh teams tussle in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup at a ground where he has suffered sectarian abuse in the past. That might not make the trip appear appetising. Yet, after six months where Stokes has been so far out of the spotlight it felt as if his career has dropped down a coalmine, any sort of reaction is entitled to make Stokes feel alive again in a footballing context.

The 27-year-old has never tasted derby success in Gorgie, but scored for Celtic there and helped his permanent club to some thumping victories in an atmosphere he describes as “great”.

“I get plenty of abuse there but Tynecastle is one of my favourite grounds, believe it or not,” he said. “You just blank out the abuse; it’s just a good atmosphere, it’s a good ground, the pitch is normally decent and the crowd are right on top of you. I hope the 
football does the talking. We’re going there to try to win 
the game.

“It’s going to be a massive game, but we are going there to win. I’ve scored there, but that’s all in the past. We’re going there off the back of a great performance at Tynecastle in the semi-final. We are going into the game 
confident.”

Stokes will go into the confrontation still reaching for his rhythm, touch and zip. He was some way short of that in Greenock, but that is to be expected when it was only the third game he has started this season. Yet, even well short of his best, with a miscontrolled stubbed effort, he demonstrated his goal scent has not been dulled by inactivity.

“I need match fitness and I need match sharpness but I hope the Morton game will have helped me,” he said. “But it’s been great at the club, the players have great enthusiasm even at training. I knew five or six of them even before I came through the door and the gaffer’s been brilliant so I am enjoying it. I want to get up to somewhere near my best as soon as I possibly can. Playing games will help. It’s been difficult getting back into the swing of things, but, listen, I’m scoring goals and enjoying my football again.”