Anthony Stokes yesterday acknowledged what everyone suspected was the case when he found himself in the middle of a tug of war for his services: his heart always said Hibernian.
Stokes shot to the top of the wanted list for several clubs when it became clear he was being allowed to leave Celtic on loan, something he said he “pushed for” after months of frustrating first-team exile. Hibs were only one of a number of interested sides, on both sides of the Border.
However, despite head coach Alan Stubbs having no prior relationship with Stokes, it seems he was always at the front of the queue as the Irish striker pondered his short-term future. The Easter Road boss yesterday revealed he was confident about getting his man, since “Anthony was driving it forward more than anyone”. Stokes later confirmed this was the case.
“I had options in the English Championship and in the Scottish Premiership but I had a good feeling when Hibs were on the phone,” he said yesterday.
“Everyone spoke very highly of Alan Stubbs. I know the club and I know a lot of the players here. When you are looking at a four-month loan, you have to consider going to a team where you think you will settle in straight away.”
“Hibs are a creative team in this league,” he added. “I’ve watched a few of their games this season and they carve out chances. I was always swaying towards Hibs.”
Hence Dundee United manager Mixu Paatelainen’s disappointment, and that of Stokes’ mentor John Hughes, who had expressed a willingness to help the player rehabilitate himself at Inverness.
When he did not receive a return phone call, Hughes quipped that Stokes must be “the fittest player in Scotland” since the Irishman had promised to get back to him “after training”. It was then four days since they had spoken.
“I sent him a text after his press conference,” said Stokes with a smile yesterday. “I still wasn’t going to ring him … just to try and annoy him. I speak to John Hughes on a regular basis, even before the transfer window [opened]. I always keep in touch with him and that won’t change.”
But Hughes, who as then Hibs manager was dismayed when Stokes was sold to Celtic six years ago, perhaps also sensed where this latest saga was going to end, with Stokes returning to Easter Road – albeit for only four months. But what an important four months.
Stokes is eligible to play in both cup tournaments, so long as it is not the League Cup final against Celtic, which is one possible scenario if Hibs overcome St Johnstone at Tynecastle a week on Saturday. Eight days later there is a Scottish Cup fifth round tie at Hearts, also in Gorgie. It is little wonder he relished the prospect of joining an upbeat squad of players at Hibs.
Stokes even decided against phoning Martin O’Neill to seek his advice, just in case the Republic of Ireland manager warned him that playing in Scotland’s second tier would damage his chances of breaking back into the international side prior to Euro 2016. These were words he didn’t want to hear.
“I just had a good feeling on coming here, and I probably didn’t want to be swayed on it because I didn’t know what way he [O’Neill] might have looked at it,” conceded Stokes.
But he needn’t worry too much on that front. Stubbs yesterday confirmed that he would be contacting O’Neill to plead Stokes’ case for him. Stubbs’ relationship with O’Neill, under whom he played in the latter part of his Celtic career, could prove helpful.
“I hope for Anthony’s sake that he has an opportunity where, if he does really well, he may just gatecrash that squad,” said Stubbs. “I think that will be difficult because Martin is very loyal.
“But you should never say never. I will speak to Martin. Everyone knows what I think of Martin, he’s a top bloke. Martin knows I will be honest and frank about what I think.”
But first Stokes will have to hit the ground running at Hibs, throwing off the doubts of those labelling him a troublemaker. Even his first press conference since his much heralded return to Hibs was delayed as Stokes, through no fault of his own, became snarled up in Edinburgh traffic after a delayed flight from Dublin.
But the reason he was in Dublin is enough to give doubters reason to question why Hibs have brought him back on board: Stokes was attending the city’s Circuit Criminal Court, where he heard his trial over an alleged assault on an Elvis impersonator has been put back ten months.
It means Stokes can concentrate on getting the goals that can propel Hibs towards the title. He is confident he can do this, citing how comfortable he feels at a club he left in 2010. He scored 23 goals in the 2009-10 season when playing up front alongside Derek Riordan. But he has already been frustrated in one attempt to recreate what he had then.
“I was asking Dylan [McGeouch] for the number 10 jersey as soon as I walked through the door but he wouldn’t give it to me, so that didn’t get off to the best start,” said Stokes.
However, he also has no qualms about being thrown straight into a high-octane title race.
“If you can handle it at Celtic for four or five years, I think I’ll cope with this OK,” he pointed out. “It’s going to be very tough. Falkirk are right there kicking about, Rangers are five points clear, but we’ve got a big game at the weekend [against St Mirren].
“If we can put a bit of pressure on Rangers, that’s what you have to do in run-ins for titles, just keep putting pressure on the opposition and see who comes out on top.”
Stokes, who was doing double training sessions at Celtic in a forlorn attempt to impress Ronny Deila, predicted it would take him no longer than a couple of weeks to get properly match-fit. Stubbs confirmed the striker would be involved against St Mirren tomorrow, although the manager has yet to decide whether that will be from the start or from the bench.