There is something about Hibernian that Anthony Stokes just cannot give up. Back for his third spell at the Easter Road club, the striker passed up bigger paydays to make it happen.
But while he has been good for the club in the past – the last time he turned out for them, at Hampden, on May 21, 2016 he helped them attain the previously unattainable – he acknowledges that they have also given him memories to cherish. Add to that the moments shared with current boss Neil Lennon and few should be surprised at the return of the prodigal son.
“I’m delighted to be back, everything just fits. I know the club inside out, I know all of the players, the manager and the staff. It was just so easy to slip back into it and get back to what I do best and enjoy my football again.”
Looking at home as he held court at the club’s training ground, he exuded an enthusiasm that belies his 29 years. But there is also a realism that comes from so long in a game where one minute players are on a pedestal, the next dumped on their backsides. And while Stokes knows he has been bestowed legendary status for his two-goal contribution as Hibernian ended their 114-year Scottish Cup winning drought, he also knows that the fans will soon turn on him if he doesn’t deliver this time around.
“The Scottish cup win is something that Hibs fans will always remember. However if I go five or six games without scoring [their gratitude to me] will be quickly forgotten. That’s football. It changes week to week and I know I need to perform for myself, the manager and the team. I have to give the manager a lot of credit because he really pushed for this in the background with the club.”
Stokes is targetting a 20-goal haul but if he fails to weigh in with goals and vital performances, he knows that the fans will not be the only ones he has to worry about. Not with a manager as demanding and as driven as Lennon, right.
“I need to be consistent, score goals, push for the top four and do as well as we can. There has been a winning mentality at this club in the last two years, getting the Scottish Cup and winning the league last season, and the gaffer has that mentality from when he played. He pushes that into the players. He won’t let the standards slip this season.
“I probably played the most consistent football of my career under him [at Parkhead]. I played week-in, week-out and he knows my strengths and he knows my weaknesses as well. I’m sure he’ll get the best out of me.
“I kept in touch with the gaffer, even when he left Celtic. Garry Parker too. I got on so well with them, we had a really good relationship. It obviously took a while to get the contract sorted. I had to weigh up my options and I told the gaffer straight that I was considering going abroad but, for my football career, everything about joining Hibs was the perfect fit for this time in my life.”
Having served up silverware in his last stint, on loan for the second half of the 2015/16 season, he returns with happy memories and an affinity with the fans and many of his team-mates. That has imbued Stokes with an early insight into the squad’s quality and chances on their return to the Premiership, which gets underway tomorrow with a home match against last season’s surprise package Partick Thistle.
“To finish the way we did [the last time I was here] was nice, albeit it would have been good to get promotion as well. I don’t think I was at my best. I wasn’t fit and wasn’t ready to go, but I’m now here on a two-year deal and I’ve plenty of time to come in and make an impact. I’ve been ticking over, working with a personal trainer, and I just need to get sharp and get into the team.
“The team is stronger than the one I left with Efe [Ambrose] and Whits [Steven Whittaker], who are both good, experienced international players. We have a good core of players from before who have that winning mentality from the Championship, which is a tough, tough league. I found it harder to play in the Championship than I did in the Premiership but it builds a winning mentality and, with the gaffer, there won’t be any let up. Every game will be a must win game and that is how he approaches things and I can’t wait to get started.”