ALAN Stubbs knew what he was getting when he signed Anthony Stokes, and he also knew what the response would be. The goal in the final few minutes of the match had almost been part of the billing.
Hibernian - 3
Henderson 10; McGinn 43; Stokes 89
St Mirren - 1
“The goal didn’t surprise me and it was the headline that probably everyone was wanting and it happened,” admitted the manager after the loan star weighed in with a late goal on his return to Easter Road, less than 20 minutes after taking to the field to a rapturous ovation. “But it doesn’t make any difference to me. If it was someone else it would have been just as good.”
Having harnessed Stokes until the end of the season, the Hibs manager opted to leave him on the subs’ bench. Instead the gauntlet was thrown down and it was up to Jason Cummings and James Dagnall to take it up. In that respect it was a frustrating afternoon for them. Both were desperate to make an impact but while they busied themselves in and around the box and made sure the visiting rearguard could not rest, their industry was not rewarded with a spot on the scoresheet.
If there was frustration in the unread flicks and dummies from Dagnall and the determined but wild efforts from his strike partner, the frustration for the home support was that it took so long for the
prodigal son to replace one of them in the line-up. The moment came in the 70th minute, the murmur going round the stadium as the Celtic player stripped off the training gear and readied himself for his entrance.
By the time he had shaken hands with Dagnall and run on to replace him, the majority of the home crowd were on their feet, the welcome laced with more than a hint of expectation.
Within a few minutes there was a give and go with Cummings and then a through ball to Fraser Fyvie, and every time Stokes went near the ball, bums moved to the edge of seats in the stands.
“They obviously know what he brings to the party. We do,” said Stubbs, who was unwilling to indulge in too much hyperbole. He described Stokes’ contribution as ‘ok’, stating there was definitely more to come but he was keen to keep the emphasis on the team as a whole. “His ability is not in question and it never has been. We know he can score goals and it is up to us as a team to provide them.
“When you have a top player sometimes just the fact he is on the pitch can cause problems because he puts defenders on the back foot. You’ve got to be in the right places to score the goals and he has come on and had two opportunities and one was cleared off the line and he scored the other.”
The striker was less complimentary about the effort cleared off the line by Jordan Stewart in the 77th minute, describing it as a “sclaffed” shot but he was happy to get back playing first-team football and scoring goals.
“I need to get my sharpness and fitness up a bit, but I was very happy with my 20 minutes,” he said.
By the time he was introduced, Hibs were already in the lead, having enjoyed the ascendancy throughout the game.
With a delightful show of movement and guile, Stokes’ fellow Celtic loanee Liam Henderson epitomised the threat and the creativity in the Hibs side. He opened the scoring with a perfectly placed free kick, taken on the angle and beating Jamie Langfield from about 25 yards out.
Hibs’ second goal came courtesy of John McGinn. The build-up play was engineered by Lewis Stevenson, Henderson and Cummings, but it was the midfielder who drilled it low past the keeper.
St Mirren responded by pulling one back from the boot of Stevie Mallan after Marvin Bartley had fouled Lawrence Shankland on the edge of the area.
It cut the deficit but the gulf was still evident and no-one was surprised when Stokes came on to side foot the third goal in from close range. It was the fairytale ending for the home side but it was also no more than they deserved.
“That first goal was a terrific strike, but at the second we tried to play it out from the back when it wasn’t on and put ourselves in trouble,” said St Mirren boss Alex Rae.
He knows these are not the games his team will be judged on but he still found positives in the performance. “You have to give the boys credit, they responded well and we got the goal from Steven [Mallan].
“So at half-time we said to them ‘ok, let’s work our way into the game, let’s not concede too much’, which is pretty much the way it panned out.”