Aidan Smith: Anthony Stokes the man and the enigma

Anthony Stokes two goals in the 2016 Scottish Cup final endeared him to Hibs fans but will he return?  Photograph: Alan Harvey/SNS
Anthony Stokes two goals in the 2016 Scottish Cup final endeared him to Hibs fans but will he return? Photograph: Alan Harvey/SNS
Share this article
18
Have your say

The Hibernian team which lifted the Scottish Cup aren’t just immortals, they were a complete one-off. The side selected to start by Alan Stubbs had never played together before and wouldn’t do so again. This is the way of football now, or at least it can be for improbable winners from the second tier. A handful will be loan guys, quick fixes, blink and they’re gone.

Conrad Logan, the goalkeeper, was keen to stay at Easter Road but didn’t get the chance. The fans were desperate for Liam Henderson to stay but the man who wasn’t among the starters although came off the bench to deliver – and I think that’s the word I’m looking for – the two greatest corner-kicks in Hibee history ultimately went back to his parent club. And then there was Anthony Stokes.

“Your defence is terrified coz Stokesy’s on fire,” sang the supporters in the final’s third minute as the striker emerged from the smoke. The red, white and blue flares launched from the Rangers end at kick-off hadn’t dispersed by the time he’d scored his first goal. Stokes was on a mission that day: to win the cup for Hibs, certainly, but also to impress Brendan Rodgers who’d just taken over at Celtic, where the player was due to return after the game.

His second goal might have been designed to impress Martin O’Neill in the hope he could still squeeze into the Republic of Ireland squad for the European Championships in France. And by the time he was awarded man-of-the-match those in the green-and-white contingent who were still capable of reasoned analysis – ie, none of them – were saying: “Yes, yes, brilliant – but why couldn’t you have played like that from day one?”

In Leith he will always be regarded as a hero, one of the legends of 2016, but maybe a few more fans are wondering what kind of player they would be getting were he to pitch up at Easter Road for a third time in an incident-packed, but not always diligence-filled, career.

I’d love to have asked him some questions myself. Writing a book about Hibs’ smashing of their cup curse, I sought out the hired hands as well as those who’d been riding the Hibee range for a long time and Henderson and Logan were good value. But Stokes was as elusive as he’d been against Rangers. There were lots of calls to his agent. The pursuit lasted all summer and then I was told he’d been advised by his father that mum was the word. He was going to be saving everything up for his own book.

The Anthony Stokes Story. It could be a decent yarn. Depends how deep he’s prepared to go, of course, having kept some questionable company down the years and made a few blunders. But it might provide the answer to this urgent inquiry: how come he’s still only 28?

In a previous life, interviewing actresses for a living, they were always 29 and I suppose by the law of averages some genuinely must have been. But Stokesy seems to have been around for a longer time. Last year wasn’t his first man-of-the-match cup final. He did it in 2013, too, for Celtic against Hibs, having already begun and ended his first stint at Easter Road, scoring more than a goal every two games, and completing an ill-starred spell at Sunderland where he notched almost as many nightclub bans as goals. So how old was he when he first made us take notice of his nonchalant talent at Falkirk – seven and a half?

Ten years ago they were describing Stokes as “enigmatic”. Not many lads in their late teens get called that. “Glass Spider may have seen the last of the enigmatic Stokes,” declared a back-page report from Wearside of how the player had decided to remove himself from the late-night bar of that name, rather than have anyone else do it. A “newly professional attitude” was mentioned.

Terrible name, Glass Spider. There are connotations with David Bowie’s most pretentious tour, involving an actual glass spider 18 metres tall by 19 metres wide. It was so big that Pepsi had to be hired as sponsors. “I burned it in a field,” said Bowie later. “No, it’s still in my garage back in Auckland,” claimed a roadie. That qualifies the original translucent arthropod as enigmatic, but no-one or nothing is more mysterious than Stokesy.

“He did his own thing,” Paul Hanlon told me, reflecting on Stokes’ four-month second spell with Hibs. “He came in and did what he wanted. He never gave anything away and you never got close to him. But to be honest I didn’t mind that. He’d done some stupid things in the past – like all strikers, really. But he wasn’t a bad egg who brought the dressing-room down.”

Continuing the cowboy analogy, Stokes in 2016 was the silent stranger who moseyed into a troubled town and displayed a ruthlessness that induced gasps from inhabitants who’d been haunted by the past. As James Tavernier’s spur squeaked to a standstill, Stokesy blew on his gun – job done. Then he moseyed out again and went to Blackburn Rovers.

Strictly speaking the job was to help get Hibs promoted. “Anthony had a great cup final. I don’t think he was so great the rest of the time,” Neil Lennon told me when I asked him earlier this year if a return was likely. It’s this sort of unsparing judgment and the manager’s knowledge of how to deal with Stokes that should encourage Hibs fans to think it could work.

The faithful, who still burn a candle for Henderson and remain intrigued over whether Scott Allan could repeat his best-ever season back at Easter Road, shouldn’t really be getting sentimental about old heroes making comebacks but all football supporters do this, it’s in their nature.

Stokes’ enigma variations have taken him from being unplayable at Hampden to not playing at all at Rovers. “Personal issues” continued to dog him there, having been in the air and Hibs, but Logan, who roomed with Stokes on the eve of the cup final, told me how when he woke up he noticed something different about his team-mate, a cold-eyed glint. The result, for the opener, was the sweet pass-into-the-net goal he’d been trying to score from day one back at Hibs. If he returns again he’ll need to do it more often, and not just against Rangers.