Anthony Stokes fully expects Hibs to win tonight’s promotion showdown with Falkirk – simply because they are the better side.
The Easter Road outfit go into the second leg of their Premiership play-off semi-final nursing a sense of grievance after referee Alan Muir’s highly-publicised blunder in not awarding them a penalty when they were 2-1 up allowed Bairns substitute Bob McHugh to claim a late equaliser.
And it was super-sub McHugh who had robbed Hibs of victory last time Falkirk were at Easter Road, but despite both games ending in draws, Stokes believes Alan Stubbs players have proved they are more than capable of fighting their way through to face Kilmarnock to battle it out for the right to play top flight football next season.
However, as annoyed as everyone might have been at Muir’s inability to see Bairns skipper David McCracken clearly handle the ball after Liam Henderson and Darren McGregor had got Hibs in front following Lee Miller’s first-half opener, Stokes was adamant he and his team-mates don’t need to use that incident as motivation for tonight.
He said: “I don’t think we need that. There’s been enough said off the field between players building up to the last game. Everyone knows what’s on the line. I don’t think it needs anything else to accelerate that.
“At the end of the day, Falkirk are in the same position as us. They’re at home and I think over the last two games we’ve been the better team. I don’t think anyone can really say otherwise. Yes, they’ve got great spirit and character, but if we play to our capabilities and take our chances, we’ll win the game.”
As disappointed as Hibs fans might have been at the eventual outcome of the first leg, Stokes was adamant Stubbs’ players were confident of still coming out on top, saying: “I think we are quite content.
“We know ourselves the result could have been quite different. It is what it is, and we’ll just go in fully focused and with the same attitude we’d have had if we were a goal or two up. We’re going there to win the game.
“The pressure is on both teams, it’s who handles it the best. But if you watched the game the other night you could see there were no nerves from us. We played our football, we played the game exactly how we wanted. It will be no different, we’ll do exactly the same things.”
Although he has been in many high pressure games in helping Celtic to league titles, the on-loan striker admitted tonight’s game might be even more stressful. He said: “A few of the boys in there haven’t been in this situation before where these are must-win games.
“But we are all fully focused. We know exactly the magnitude of the task ahead of us. 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.
“I don’t think you can go in worrying about the game. You have to treat it like a normal game and not let the nerves get to you.
“Everyone knows one mistake could change the whole outcome of the game, you just need to be positive and play your normal game.”
It was, of course, a mistake by Conrad Logan, the Hibs goalkeeper allowing McHugh’s shot to squirm under his body, which ensures tonight’s match begins all-square but, Republic of Ireland hitman Stokes insisted, his countryman won’t let that bother him in the slightest.
He said: “The big man will be fine. It’s not like he’s a kid, a young goalkeeper. He’s plenty of experience, he was at Leicester for an awful long time and that shows you how highly they thought of him.
“He’s been great, he’s kept us in games. Take the semi-final. For his first game I thought he was phenomenal. He was brilliant.
“It happens. I miss a chance up the pitch, that’s a mistake from me. He makes a mistake and it costs us. But he’s kept out more than he’s let in since he came in.”
On that point, Stokes didn’t shy away from the opportunity he had to level Tuesday night’s match before his header allowed Henderson to do so.
Admitting he felt as if he was due a goal or two – although he insisted he always felt that way – he said: “I’ve 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, there’s nothing I could do about it.
“But if you are not scoring goals you want to try and assist and I was happy enough to help us get back into the game. It’s all about the team at the end of the day. I said that when I first came in I wasn’t going to come here and score four or five goals and win us every game.
“If you’re contributing and if we get promoted – and maybe even the Scottish Cup and I help along the way, that’s all I want to do.”
Tonight will represent Hibs’ 53rd game of a marathon season, their fourth in the space of just ten days but, Stokes insisted, no-one should expect Stubbs’ players to run out of steam.
He said: “It’s a young team, there’s a good balance in the squad. There is experience there, but a lot of the team are young and fresh-legged. I don’t think fatigue will be an issue, we’re not going to make any excuses.
“We’re ready to go for the games and we’re looking forward to it. There have been a lot lately, the last six weeks have been quite intense.”
However, Stokes claimed such a hectic schedule has actually helped him hone his fitness having arrived at Easter Road in January after spending months on the sidelines at Celtic Park.
He said: “At the start I felt very lacklustre and I didn’t feel I was at it at all. But the last four or five games, while I haven’t scored as many as I would have liked, my performances have become more consistent and I think I have been contributing to the team.”
It was at Falkirk, of course, where Stokes first came to prominence, scoring an astonishing 18 goals in half a season with the Bairns but that, he insisted, is past history.
The 27-year-old said: “I was only there for a few months, but I scored a lot of goals. I enjoyed it with big Yogi [John Hughes] there. They were a good bunch of lads and a good team at the time.
“It was a great period in my career – it was the first time I had really played senior first team football. It kick-started my career but that is all out of the window now.
“I’m only focused on Hibs and getting us through, winning this game and moving on to the next one.”