Neil Lennon knows what he would do if he were in Anthony Stokes’ shoes right now. He’d be on the phone to Hibs to advise them to get the welcoming committee organised.
There is no time like the present to kick-start a career that has stalled in England and no better place than Hibs. Having come to an agreement to end his contact with Blackburn Rovers two years early, Stokes knows his next move is a crucial one.
After all, he turns 29 today. There is a take-it-or-leave-it offer on the table from the Easter Road club, where he has enjoyed success in two separate spells. This proposal is possibly even more attractive since the manager making it is Neil Lennon, under whom Stokes flourished at Celtic.
Lennon replaced Alan Stubbs at Hibs last summer and is keen to work once more with Stokes who, he claims, played the best football of his career under him.
“If I was him, I would be coming here,” said Lennon. “He knows he’s a hero after the Scottish Cup final and he knows the management team and the majority of the players. He knows we can get the best out of him.
Lennon is happy with the moves he has made in the transfer market so far, including the on-loan signing of Vykintas Slivka from Juventus. But there are players who provide the X factor and Stokes is undoubtedly one of them.
“They’re always at a premium, those types of players,” said Lennon.
“We’ve lost Jason [Cummings], so we’re looking to replace that volume of goals. Anthony’s experienced and he has won a lot of trophies in Scotland, obviously with Hibs as well as Celtic. He had a great time when he was younger at Falkirk, a fantastic couple of seasons there.
“So the environment suits him and gets the best out of him. He’s played in big games for Celtic, whether that be European games or Old Firm games, and he’s still got plenty in him.
“But, again, I don’t know what his personal situation is. I’m just looking at it from a football point of view.”
Stokes has not had his troubles to seek since returning to England, where he started his career at Arsenal. A long-running saga involving an assault on an Elvis impersonator concluded in a Dublin courtroom earlier this year, with the player receiving a suspended two-year sentence. Stokes was also ordered to compensate the victim, Anthony Bradley, to the tune of €230,000.
His football inevitably suffered and he scored just four times for Blackburn, and just once in the league. Stokes knows there is an extra onus on him staying out of trouble and in Lennon he could have someone who can appreciate his situation as well as, perhaps, sympathise with it.
“At this juncture of his career, I think he needs to play, and play for a club that wants him here and for a manager who knows him inside out and can deal with all his little issues, because we’ve all had them,” said Lennon. “He’s a very talented player and he scored a lot of very important goals for me over the four years I was at Celtic,” he added. “And he contributed to a lot of goals as well. His partnership with [Gary] Hooper was spectacular at times. They were just two really good footballers who understood each other.
“If you look at his performance in the cup final, that is 14 months ago now, but it shows he’s a big-game player and he likes the big games. It really floats his boat. Coming here, there would be plenty of big games to get his teeth into. Whether he would get that pressurised situation going somewhere else, I don’t know.”
Lennon is happy to put Stokes on the back burner for now as he prepares for the concluding two games in Hibs’ Betfred Cup group, starting against Arbroath at Easter Road tonight.
But he would like to have added both Stokes and Kris Commons to the squad before long. Commons has recently undergone surgery for a back problem and has been offered a deal at Hibs, providing he can prove his fitness.
The 33-year-old midfielder has been offered training facilities at Hibs, for whom he made five appearances last season as an emergency loan.
“He can make the difference,” said Lennon. “I have a good relationship with him and I can talk freely about him now he’s out of contract.
“But it all depends on his recovery from surgery. Back surgery as I know from a personal aspect can be tricky. We expect it to be at least another couple of months until he is fully fit.
“He was talking at one stage about retiring but it’s far too early for him to do anything like that,” Lennon added. “Celtic was a huge part of his life. When it comes to an end, it is hard to take the next step anywhere else because it is such an exciting place to be involved in. But I am confident we can offer something that floats his boat.”