Liam Henderson stars for Hibs in the Anthony Stokes show
Most only had eyes for Anthony Stokes on Saturday but after Liam Henderson scored the opening goal for Hibernian, it was another of the subs he chose to celebrate with.
Wheeling away after his tenth minute free-kick broke the deadlock against St Mirren, the teenager ran the width of the pitch to hug his mate.
“I ran to celebrate with James Keatings but I won’t tell you what that was all about – we are mates and we have a bit of a bromance going on,” he said. “We sit next to each other in the dressing room and I trained with him at Celtic and he has become a close pal. He is always trying to help me improve my game and I really appreciate it.”
The beautifully converted set piece, which was whipped into the postage stamp corner of Jamie Langfield’s net, was the product of Henderson’s and Keatings’ post-training practice sessions, according to the lad whose goal was simply the cherry on top of a wonderful display of movement, link-up play and technique.
“James goes for more power and I’m more about placement but we stay behind together after training and it’s paid off,” said Henderson. “He has been on fire in recent weeks and he’s a top player. I have been practicing my free-kicks so it was nice to see it go in and the practice to pay off.”
Despite the goal and the overall input, while Henderson was the man of the match, he and the other players must have felt like supporting actors in a Stokes blockbuster. Manager Alan Stubbs had opted to leave the prodigal son on the bench but every time he emerged from the dugout there was a cheer and the stands eventually erupted when, with 20 minutes remaining, he joined the fray.
A replacement for Chris Dagnall, who had been chosen to lead the line along with Jason Cummings, he joined the action with his team already 2-1 ahead.
While the strikeforce had kept the St Mirren defence busy, it was John McGinn who had added to Henderson’s early goal with a 43rd minute strike. The goal owed much to the build-up with Lewis Stevenson, Henderson and Cummings creating the opening. But McGinn made no mistake, stroking his shot coolly into the net.
St Mirren, who gave a debut to former Ross County player Rocco Quinn, tried to keep their hosts at bay and reduced the deficit when Stevie Mallan made the most of a free-kick at the edge of Mark Oxley’s box, pinging his effort beyond the Hibs keeper.
St Mirren, who seem to be taking on the guidance of new boss Alex Rae as they look to edge their way up the Championship table, took further solace from the fact they were able to keep things tight throughout the majority of the second half despite Hibs’ dominance. Hibs defender Paul Hanlon was defied twice, as one header was saved and another was cleared off the line.
Finding a way through is something Stokes has built his career on and with 20 minutes remaining the crowd gave him a standing ovation as he took to the field and his impact was immediate. He team-mates got a lift as he drew defenders to him, offering the likes of Cummings more space and time to flourish.
With an eye for a give and go and a neat through ball, he showed enough to suggest that Hibs have got a player who has the desire to get back to his best through regular action. But with his last-gasp goal he proved his real worth. “Everybody knows what Stokesy is all about,” said Henderson. “He has played in the Champions League, Europa League and for the Republic of Ireland so he is a great addition to the squad.
“As you saw against St Mirren he could well score plenty of goals for us this season. When he came on the fans erupted and that helps to give everyone a big lift. He is a quality player that the other younger boys will learn from him, I’m sure. I think Jason Cummings is an excellent player and he is destined for the top, but I reckon playing alongside Stokesy can make him even better and bring him on leaps and bounds.”
In the right place at the right time it was a simple finish from close range to wrap up the scoring and give the fans and his colleagues hope as they head into back-to-back cup ties.