Comment: Anthony Stokes is cherry on top for strong Hibs squad

Anthony Stokes is a hero to HiIbs fans after scoring twice in the Scottish Cup final triumph
Anthony Stokes is a hero to HiIbs fans after scoring twice in the Scottish Cup final triumph
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The last time Hibs faced Partick Thistle, they were freefalling haplessly towards the Championship.

A scrambled 1-1 draw with the Jags at Easter Road in May 2014, courtesy of a late Sam Stanton equaliser, gave supporters hope that Terry Butcher’s bedraggled team would avoid the drop by the skin of their teeth. In the end, however, that match proved to be one of their last as a top-flight team.

As they prepare to welcome Thistle on their eagerly-awaited Premiership return this weekend, Hibs are unrecognisable from the side that slipped so meekly out of the top flight just over three years ago. There is now an air of bullishness and ambition about the club which, prior to the reinvigorating Championship years, hadn’t been present at Easter Road for some time.

In Neil Lennon, they are led back into the big time by a man of genuine substance – certainly in the context of Scottish football – who has built well on the solid foundations put in place by Alan Stubbs in the two years following relegation. The manager’s mentality – where winning is the be all and end all – and the fact he has been well backed in the transfer market, should ensure he is able to take Hibs back into the top six at the first time of asking.

Despite the summer departures of top scorer Jason Cummings and popular players like James Keatings, Grant Holt and Fraser Fyvie, which had several supporters fretting as recently as a couple of weeks ago, the Hibs squad now looks in good shape for an assault on the top half of the Premiership.

While they may lack the attacking stardust of Aberdeen, Lennon’s team appear to have the most solid base, in terms of goalkeeper and defence, in the division outwith Celtic. Summer signings Ofir Marciano, Steven Whittaker and Efe Ambrose all boast vast experience at international level and bring obvious quality and composure to the backline. In addition, David Gray, Darren McGregor, Paul Hanlon, Liam Fontaine and Lewis Stevenson – the back five from the 2016 Scottish Cup final – have proved a reliable unit for the past few seasons, both in the league and against some of the top teams in the country in the knockout tournaments. All can be expected to take the step up to the Premiership in their stride.

As a man who has won several titles with Celtic as both a player and manager, Lennon understands the value of a solid defence boasting experience and leadership qualities. It is no surprise to see several potential captains among the aforementioned eight names.

The same could be said of midfield, where John McGinn and Marvin Bartley have spent the past two years establishing themselves as leaders in the team. Bartley’s appetite for destruction has been highlighted in several big matches, and he can be one of Hibs’ key men in a division where they will come under more intense pressure than in the Championship, where they often had to contend with opponents intent on defending deep and hitting on the counter. McGinn’s stock has soared during his two years in Edinburgh, and the high-energy Scotland midfielder can be expected to thrive on his return to the top flight and continue to be his team’s main driving force. Regardless of how their attack functions, Hibs are unlikely to lose many games with this batch of warrior-spirited operators in their ranks.

Midfield poise and creativity will come from deep-lying playmaker Dylan McGeouch, former St Johnstone winger Danny Swanson, and Vykintas Slivka, the all-action 22-year-old Lithuania internationalist who has the potential to emerge as one of the league’s signings of the summer if he can adapt to the unique demands of Scottish football. If Slivka and Swanson perform as expected, the departures of Fyvie and Andrew Shinnie – two midfield regulars last season – will have been comfortably offset.

In attack, Simon Murray, Deivydas Matulevicius and Anthony Stokes have been recruited to replace Keatings, Holt and Cummings, while Brian Graham and Martin Boyle remain from last season. Matulevicius and Stokes are both of a pedigree that suggests they should be comfortable with spearheading Hibs’ challenge.

Matulevicius, a regular in the Lithuania squad, is a target man rather than a prolific scorer and, like Slivka, his success will be dependent on how he copes with Scottish football. His imposing frame and a good awareness of the environment he is entering should help him in this regard. For Stokes, a lack of familiarity will not be a factor as he has already spent two fruitful spells with Hibs. Having scored a double in the Scottish Cup final win over Rangers 14 months ago, he already commands hero status among supporters without having kicked a ball in his third stint. Stokes’ quality and ability to influence games at Premiership level is not in doubt, but, bearing in mind how slow he was to ignite during his last spell at the club, the big factor regarding his effectiveness for the upcoming campaign will be how quickly he can get himself up to speed and rediscover his spark after a dismal year at Blackburn Rovers in which he barely featured. If able to get himself in the zone early on, he should still be capable of filling the 20-goals-a-season void left by Cummings.

In the meantime, much of the scoring burden will fall on the shoulders of Murray, who has hit the ground running since his close-season arrival from Dundee United. There were no shortage of sceptics among the Hibs support when he first joined, but the energetic red-head has since gone a long way to dispelling the doubts by scoring seven goals in his four Betfred Cup matches and is primed to lead the attack against Thistle on Saturday.

Lennon also has the option of turning to burgeoning teenagers like Ryan Porteous, Fraser Murray and Oli Shaw if he wishes to bring fresh zest to his vastly-experienced team.

Hibs are generally in good order ahead of the opening match.

Regardless of whether any more new faces arrive, Hibs already boast enough momentum, resilience and depth of quality in their squad to realistically aim for a top-four finish.