Neil Lennon, returning to Ibrox for the first time since leaving Celtic, is bound to elicit the biggest reaction. “Probably if he does that thing with his ears again,” smiled Stokes, whose own return to Govan is overdue.
Stokes was referencing Lennon cupping his ears six years ago after a 0-0 draw towards the end of the 2010-11 campaign. It was Lennon’s first full season as Celtic manager. The result, soon after it was revealed parcel bombs had been sent to Lennon, was achieved against a backdrop of increased tension.
He responded to the jeers of the Rangers fans, who knew Celtic were now all but certain to secure the title, by cupping his ears as he disappeared down the tunnel.
So Stokes knows he – if selected this weekend – can go about his work in a slightly less harassed manner than might otherwise have been the case.
He hasn’t played at Ibrox since March, 2012, also Lennon’s last visit. He hasn’t scored there since hitting a stylish equaliser for John Hughes’ Hibs side in October 2010.
That result left Hibs sitting joint second in the league with Celtic, just two points behind leaders Rangers. A lot has happened to Rangers and Hibs since then, as well as to Stokes himself. Now 29, the Irish striker is keen to make up for lost time.
He certainly put himself firmly in Lennon’s thoughts for a starting place on Saturday after scoring twice in the 5-0 Betfred Cup win over Ayr United on Tuesday. It was a significant evening for the player, even if the circumstances were far lower key than will be the case this weekend.
In his first top-team start for a year, Stokes lasted the 90 minutes and scored twice into the bargain. He also set up strike partner Simon Murray’s goal. All in all it was an ideal way in which to continue easing his way back into match action again after such a long spell on the sidelines.
A top flight clash between Rangers and Hibs – the first since January 2012 – is a slightly different proposition, particularly for someone with Stokes’ backstory. The former Celtic striker scored twice for Hibs in their Scottish Cup victory over Rangers at Hampden last year.
“I think I prefer games like that, where atmosphere is intense where there’s nothing more on the line,” he agreed. “You want to win every game but the atmosphere does get through to you. You just have to stay relaxed.
“The fans can’t play the game for them it’s down to us. I am positive if we bring our A game then we can cause them a lot of problems.”
The personnel expected to deliver Hibs’ “A game” is up for debate. Lennon made four changes to the side which defeated Thistle in their opening league game when overpowering Ayr on Wednesday.
Stokes came in and could have done little more to catch Lennon’s eye. “Well, I could have scored a hat-trick,” he said, ever hungry for goals.
“I think everyone put down a marker [v Ayr]. It’s a great squad. There’s a lot of experience there, there’s young lads pushing. We are all in it together. It’s a headache for the gaffer but one I’m sure he’d want.”
Stokes is adamant about one thing: the team he has re-joined are stronger than the team which lifted the Scottish Cup 16 months ago.
“I think it is a better squad genuinely,” he said. “I think there’s greater depth to it, competition for places. I think it is a stronger squad, that’s only my personal opinion though.”
Jason Cummings scored his first goal for Nottingham Forest on the night Hibs were firing five past Ayr, with Stokes and Simon Murray to the fore. Cummings will of course be missed. But, in Murray and Stokes, Hibs are blessed with a promising partnership.
Although they seemed to strike up a bond on Tuesday, Stokes is confident they can get a lot better together. “I think we just need to play together a few more times just to get a better understanding,” he said. “I think tonight it was as good as it was going to be. You are not just going to walk in and start playing with someone and know exactly their attributes. Hopefully in the coming weeks we can build on that.”
Although he was enduring an unhappy time at Blackburn Rovers, Stokes said he was aware of Murray, who scored 18 times for Dundee United last season. He just didn’t appreciate how willing a worker his new partner was.
“I’ve watched Scottish football even last year, kept an eye on it, but I didn’t know much about him to be honest,” he said. “I knew of him and that he was coming to Hibs.
“It is a great start for him. To come into a new club and hit the ground running will be great for him. I hope he can maintain it for the season because we are going to need everyone.”