He doesn’t want to cause offence because this recent spell back on loan has reaffirmed his deep feelings for the Easter Road club. But Anthony Stokes is desperate to score against Scottish Cup holders Hibs in the league next season for Celtic.
If such a scenario does unfold it would mean three of his main ambitions have been fulfilled. For a start, to be holders Hibs must have beaten Rangers on 21 May to lift their first Scottish Cup since 1902. To be in the same league as Celtic, meanwhile, they must also have emerged successful from a play-off saga which continues against Falkirk tonight.
Lastly, in order to be playing, and scoring, for Celtic, the on-loan Stokes has clearly done enough during his Hibs sojourn to convince the new manager at Parkhead he is worth retaining. The striker’s summer could also include an appearance at Euro 2016 but his chances appeared to recede yesterday when he was left out of Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland squad to play the Netherlands on 27 May.
Of course, providing everything goes to plan, Stokes is hoping he is involved in a Premiership play-off final second leg against Kilmarnock three nights earlier in any case.
Stokes reasons that securing promotion with Hibs to the Premiership, preferably four days after a historic Scottish Cup win, is bound to catch the eye of whoever is chosen to replace Ronny Deila, whose coolness towards the striker saw the player sent out on loan earlier this season.
Stokes hopes Celtic can appoint Deila’s successor quickly, and that the new man notes Stokes’ industrious performances as Hibs near the end of an epic campaign.
“They’re going to have to get someone in quickly because the last time when Deila came in, with the European games, it wasn’t a great scenario,” he said. “Listen, if I score a couple of goals against Rangers and we win the cup, and I score a few more and we get promoted, it won’t do me any harm. That’s pretty straightforward.”
“If we get up and I get myself back into the Celtic team then I won’t be too disappointed, put it that way,” he added. “I’ve always said I want to go back to Celtic at the end of the season. But there are four games left and I’m fully focused on Hibs, because there’s so much to play for and so much you can achieve over those four games. I don’t have another thought in my head at the moment.”
Stokes has been surprised by the intensity of an end of season where he feels he is just reaching peak fitness.
Having sat out much of the first half of the campaign at Celtic, he is relishing the constant action. One goal in 10 games is not quite the return he was hoping for, but there’s no debating his workrate. After missing a good one-on-one chance in Tuesday night’s first-leg draw with Falkirk he was able to re-focus and set up Liam Henderson’s equaliser.
“Jason [Cummings] should have scored as well by the way!” he said. “Listen, I have been in that situation plenty of times. You just wipe it out.
“As soon as it’s done, it’s done. The ball actually bobbled the other night, there’s nothing I can do about it. I was trying to go across the keeper and I didn’t even put much power on it, but these things happen in football. It’s happened to me plenty of times, I have gone seven, eight, nine games without scoring. You can’t change what you are doing. You put it to the back of your mind, you keep getting into positions and you move on.”
Stokes admits he found it hard to get going initially, although he did score on his first two appearances for Hibs, notching only five more in 23 games since.
“For me at the start I felt very lacklustre and I didn’t feel I was at it at all,” he said. “But the last four or five games, while I haven’t scored as many as I would have liked, my performances have become a lot more consistent. I think I have been contributing to the team. If you are not scoring goals, that’s what you need to do.”
Stokes has experience of not only international football with Republic of Ireland, but also league title run-ins with Celtic. But these play-offs, when so much rests on going up, is a new type of pressure.
“It’s probably more stressful to be honest with you,” he said. “A few of the boys in there haven’t been in this situation before where these are must-win games. Listen, we’re all fully focused on the games. We know exactly the magnitude of the task ahead of us. But I don’t think anyone is afraid.
“You could see on Tuesday night we played exactly how we wanted to, no one hid away. Everyone wanted the ball and that’s what you need in these games.”