But he’ll make his entrance with Alan Stubbs’ team five points behind the league leaders.
The goals have dried up for Hibs recently and they could only manage a draw against Falkirk in a game that only really came alive in the second half, Jason Cummings equalising Blair Alston’s opener.
Stokes took his seat in the stand for a match that went ahead thanks to a team of volunteers who gave up Saturday night television and central heating to clear the pitch of snow. But could a fixture not featuring either of the Old Firm and not being played in the top flight reasonably be called the game of the weekend? Falkirk, on an unbeaten ten-game run, and Hibs were out to prove this and were able to point to a recent history of drama, needle and controversy to get us in the mood.
Last April there had been Hibs’ strange failure to overcome the Bairns, having pounded them for virtually the entire 90 minutes, until you remembered that that match had come in the ever-elusive Scottish Cup. The semi-final produced some huffiness between the managers and then in the first meeting in the Championship this season, Peter Houston had cause to be grumpy again when a hotly-disputed penalty beat his side. In the most recent encounter just five weeks previously John McGinn was red-carded but Hibs battled back to deny their rivals a win.
Alston and Cummings both had early sights at goal before the Hibs striker, back after illness caused him to miss the Scottish Cup win at Raith Rovers, thought he spied another chance. A good break from Dylan McGeouch and a lovely dummy by Dominique Malonga had set him up. But really he was too far out. And he was on his weaker right foot. But when you can feel the hot breath of Stokes on your neck you will try such things.
Cummings, as top goalscorer, would expect to keep his place. Maybe Malonga will be more vulnerable. The French-born Congolese was his usual mix of subtlety and slovenliness.
Falkirk saw slightly less of the ball but Mark Kerr was a steady presence in the middle of the park and Craig Sibbald in the hole ahead of him tried to make cute interventions. Lee Miller should have set up Alston midway through the first period but his pass was telegraphed.
The first period failed to produce a single shot on target. Fraser Fyvie, back from suspension, blasted one over the bar before Malonga had a go, his effort dribbling wide. Will Vaulks’ drive from 25 yards looked more promising as it left his right foot, but the ball sailed wide of Mark Oxley’s post and nested in the mounds of snow at the back.
In the last minute before the break, Bairns fans thought the breakthrough had arrived. A clever dummy in the box from John Baird opened up space for thundering full-back Luke Leahy but his strike was deflected over.
The second half promised better right away with Miller turning quickly 15 yards out to fire in a shot. Fortunately for Hibs it struck Liam Fontaine and cleared the bar. The portent had been accurate, though, for in the 49th minute Alston - who’d looked most likely for Falkirk - put them ahead.. Aaron Muirhead was responsible for the lead-up work and Baird fed Alston in the box. A cool sidestep bought him some room and he netted with a low shot.
Peter Houston’s men went looking for a second and Hibs had a jittery ten minutes before making a change, Liam Henderson replacing the ineffective James Keatings. John McGinn had a penalty claim rejected by referee John Beaton before Henderson sprung Cummings, the striker finally getting an opportunity on his left foot but Danny Rogers saved.
All the talk beforehand had been about a loan signing, a former favourite returning to his old club to demonstrate the tricks he’d learned at a higher level. Hibs fans will have to wait on Stokes but the home supporters were able to welcome back Conor McGrandles, a £1 signing for Norwich City in 2014, when he came on for Miller.
He made an immediate impression when his speed and gangliness but Hibs equalised in the 73rd minute. The ball was played out wide to Darren McGregor, a scorer against Raith with a sizzling right-foot shot. This effort was just as hard-hit and Rogers was unable to hold it, Cummings pouncing to net with his 17th goal of the season, to the delight of the 2,000 travelling Hibs fans.
McGregor rampaged down the right again, his cross being headed over by Malonga. It was a far better game now, typified by a dogged midfield battle between Vaulks and McGeouch. That contest looked like finishing an honorable draw but Hibs sensed they could seize all three points. Roared on by their supporters they drove forward, forced some corners and Cummingg just failed to get on the end of yet another McGregor delivery. The striker had the best and final chance, having being put through by Henderson who’d added vim since entering the fray, but his shot was well saved by Rogers.
Falkirk: Rogers, Muirhead, Watson, Peter Grant, Leahy, Alston (O’Hara 81), Vaulks, Kerr, Sibbald, Miller (McGrandles 70), Baird. Subs Not Used: Bowman, Smith, Blair, Gallacher, McCracken.
Hibernian: Oxley, McGregor, Hanlon, Fontaine, Stevenson, McGeouch, Fyvie, McGinn, Keatings (Henderson 58), Malonga (Dagnall 77), Cummings. Subs Not Used: Gunnarsson, Gray, Bartley, Boyle, Reguero.