Slow, rusty, a little out of touch. All of these descriptions could be applied to Anthony Stokes on the first start of his second spell for Hibernian.
Yet, they are rendered irrelevant because the term that must be employed ahead of all others after his efforts in Greenock last night is “matchwinner”. And that is the beauty of the Irish striker that Alan Stubbs has recruited from Celtic. He scores goals, important goals, and these win games that have impacted on title races.
On a night when Hibs were forced to grind their way to victory over Morton in mighty laborious fashion, they lost no ground to Rangers in the Championship because Stokes conjured a goal out of nothing after 48 minutes. A Lee Kilday mis-hit dropped to John McGinn who found Stokes. He miscontrolled it. Only for the 27-year-old to then poke a low right-foot effort into the corner.
A Tuesday night in Greenock always appeared to have the potential to provide an awkward assignment for Stubbs’ men. Whatever boost they might have derived from booking their place in the League Cup final they would have loved that high to propel them through a whole week’s tails-up training before facing their fiercest foes in the Scottish Cup at Tynecastle on Sunday.
The requirement to squeeze in a trip west to take on Morton in a game that had to be won to retain any realistic prospect of dislodging an Ibrox side eight-points better off would hardly have been relished by the Leith club. As the filling in a cup sandwich formed by contests against St Johnstone and Hearts, it was marmite. For spells, the visitors played as if what was on their plate last night was hardly to be feasted on.
Stubbs, as has been his wont, showed a fearlessness in daring to utilise his squad across a crammed spell. It was anticipated that Stokes would be handed the first start of his loan spell after missing out in the weekend win with a back strain.
The Celtic striker turned out to be one of a quartet of changes from the victory over the Perth side. Another on-loan player, Norwegian defender Niklas Gunnarsson, was also handed his first league start. Places in the side for James Keatings and Darren McGregor meant Jason Cummings, Chris Dagnall, David Gray and Paul Hanlon making way. Hanlon, though, was forced to vacate the bench within 12 minutes to replace the injured Liam Fontaine.
The play from both sides across the first period was meandering, at best. Jim Duffy’s side were cagey, perhaps inhibited by the predicament of halting a morale-sapping run of three straight home defeats. Hibs, meanwhile, looked to Liam Henderson and McGinn to drive forward and create openings. The pair certainly drove forward. Openings, though, were conspicuous by their absence from both teams as players ran down blind alleys or put passes astray.
It wasn’t until the 40th minute that either goalkeeper was tested. Then, a perfect diagonal from deep delivered by Henderson, begged for Keatings to snap his neck and head into the corner. The striker’s contact was firm but close enough to Derek Gaston for him to claw it away. Stokes’ goal so quick after the restart seemed to take both teams by surprise. It did not give Stubbs’ side a firm grip on the encounter, though. The graft and application from the visitors was never in doubt but the closing stages became all about nerve against opponents that forced the ball forward more often as the minutes ticked by but never really threatened to find a way back.
Stubbs might not care for the suggestion, but the treble remains alive. And now they are the only team in the country that can say that.