Anthony Stokes has unfinished business at Hibs

Anthony Stokes has been given the No.28 shirt
Anthony Stokes has been given the No.28 shirt
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You would think that having contributed to the best day in the lives of so many Hibs supporters would be enough of a parting gift from striker Anthony Stokes.

That assumption, however, doesn’t sit right with the Republic of Ireland internationalist who is back for a third spell in a green-and-white jersey and craving further success with the Easter Road club.

It would be fair to say the player, who has put pen to paper on a two-year deal, will be forever idolised by so many down Leith irrespective of how this first season back in the top flight pans out.

The 29-year-old entered Hibs folklore when his two goals favoured the romanticists as Alan Stubbs’ men fought back to overcome Rangers and win the Scottish Cup in May 2016 – captain David Gray heading home a Liam Henderson corner in the 92nd minute to send the east side of the national stadium into delirium.

As such, very few supporters raised an eyebrow when Stokes, who had been on loan from Celtic, decided to try his luck down south, this time with Blackburn Rovers just weeks after his Hampden heroics.

It was simply the fairytale ending for a player who had been tipped for bigger and better things in the English Championship.

However, the former Sunderland striker failed to carve out a career at Ewood Park, instead negotiating an early release from his three-year contract having made just 12 appearances for the Lancashire club.

But, now he’s back where he believes he has played some of the best football of his career, forthcoming with his approval for head coach Neil Lennon’s new-look squad as they prepare for their first Premiership fixture in more than three years when Partick Thistle arrive at Easter Road tomorrow.

“The team is stronger than the one I left with Efe [Ambrose] and Whits [Steven Whittaker] coming in who are both good, experienced international players,” said Stokes, who is hoping to have some involvement against Alan Archibald’s side.

“We have a good core of players from before who have that winning mentality from the Championship. If you look at the strength of the Hibs squad we have this season, hopefully I can add to that and we can have a real go.

“To finish the way we did was nice when I was last here, albeit it would have been good to get promotion as well. For me, Celtic has always been my club and it always will be. I think winning the first league title with Celtic was probably the biggest thing I have done in my career; it was probably the happiest day of my life.

“But that [Hibs win] did surpass it in the end. I think it was just the scenes at the end – and even the next day with the parade, I’ve never experienced anything like that in football before. For me, that probably did top things – and I never thought that would be the case.

“The Scottish cup win is something that the Hibs fans will always remember.

“However, if I go five or six games without scoring it 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.”

For all that he achieved during his previous spell in the Capital, Stokes revealed he wasn’t entirely happy with how things started.

“I don’t think I was at my best when I first came back on loan, 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,” he said. “It is a tough league to play in and I found it harder to play in the Championship than I did in the Premiership.

“Despite not playing much football I’ve been ticking over, working with a personal trainer, and I just need to get sharp and get into the team. I haven’t kicked a ball for a long time. I trained with the guys yesterday and I was a lot better than I thought I would be. I was actually surprised. I am not a million miles off it and I just need game time and general sharpness.”

Stokes insists he is eternally grateful at the length Lennon and the club’s board went to in luring him back to Scotland.

“I have to give the manager a lot of credit because he really pushed for this in the background with the club,” Stokes explained. “They really did try and accommodate me in every way possible and that is one of the reasons why I came back as they did everything to get the deal over the line.

“Neil was a vital part of my decision. I probably played the most consistent football of my career under him. I played week-in, week-out and he knows my strengths. He knows my weaknesses as well and I’m sure he’ll be able to 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 and had a really good relationship when I was there.

“I had to weigh up my options and I told the gaffer straight that I was considering going abroad but, for my football career and desire to get back on track, everything about joining Hibs was the perfect fit for this time in my life.

“Every game will be a must-win game and that is how he approaches things and I can’t wait to get started.”