Stokes: Me and Simon Murray are only going to get better

Anthony Stokes celebrates opening the scoring against Ayr United. He then set up Simon Murray for the second and Murray returned the favour, helping Stokes to the third goal
Anthony Stokes celebrates opening the scoring against Ayr United. He then set up Simon Murray for the second and Murray returned the favour, helping Stokes to the third goal
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They have barely been introduced but already Anthony Stokes and Simon Murray look as comfortable together as an old pair of socks.

Hibs’ new look strikeforce claimed three of Hibs’ five goals in their Betfred Cup demolition of Ayr United, Stokes scoring two of them while laying on Murray’s ninth of the season in what was a comprehensive victory for Neil Lennon’s team.

Simon Murray

Simon Murray

Even the Easter Road boss admitted he had been surprised at how quickly the pair had dovetailed, those goals coming after an opening few minutes in which there was a fair bit of pointing and remonstrating between the two as they started to get to grips with each other’s game.

Obviously it’s going to take time for the partnership to develop – although Lennon has plenty of options up front - but Stokes insisted their understanding will only get better as time wears on.

The 29-year-old, starting his first match in his third spell with Hibs, nodded home the opener, supplied a wonderfully weighted through ball for Murray to add a second before the flame-haired forward returned the compliment, delivering a superb cross for the Republic of Ireland internationalist to knock home from close range.

Efe Ambrose and Lithuanian hitman Deivydas Matulevicius, with his first goal for the Capital club, completed the scoring although such was Hibs’ dominance they could easily have added to their tally as they cruised into the last eight of the competition.

For Stokes is was his first start since featuring for Blackburn Rovers in an EFL Cup victory over Crewe a year ago, his stay at Ewood Park turning into an unhappy one and cut short after only one season to pave the way for another return to Edinburgh despite plenty of interest from as far afield as China and India.

The former Celtic player had the good grace to admit he wasn’t overly familiar with Murray although he insisted he did know of the ex-Dundee United frontman and, he revealed, he likes what he’s seen so far.

Murray’s strike against Ayr leaves him enjoying the kudos of enjoying the best goalscoring start to a career of any Hibs player since Joe McBride scored ten in five games in the space of a month late in 1968, but it’s a record which has won over those supporters who questioned his signing in the first place.

Stokes said: “He’s a clever player, he works hard and he is hungry, you can see that in him in and around goal. He has an eye for a goal, that was his eighth or ninth or whatever since the start of the season so he has ability.

“I’ve watched Scottish football, even last year, I kept an eye on it. I didn’t know much about Simon to be honest but I knew of him and that he was coming to Hibs.

“I think it is a great start for him. To come into a new club and hit the ground running will be great for him, Hopefully he can maintain it for the season because we are going to need everyone.”

And Stokes believes his experience can help his more junior partner’s all-action game. He said: “I think we just need to play together a few more times just to get a better understanding. I think the other night was as good as it was going to get.

“You are not just going to walk in and start playing with someone and know exactly all their attributes. Hopefully in the coming weeks we can build on that.

“Simon is always eager to run, to get in behind. I’ve told him that sometimes you can just stand still, you can do more damage just by backing into them and being a link player. But he is flying at the minute, he’s finding the back of the net and, as a striker, that’s what it is all about. He’s doing that and he’s the focal point at the minute.”

All eyes now, of course, turn to Saturday’s Premiership clash with Rangers at Ibrox, the first time the two clubs have met since Hibs came from behind to defeat the Glasgow outfit and so lift the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years, sparking that Hampden pitch invasion which brought all sorts of accusations from those in the west and dozens of arrests in what some felt turned into a witch hunt thereafter.

As such plenty of tension is guaranteed to be in the air in Govan, however, Stokes will take it all in his stride.

He said: “I think I prefer games like that where the atmosphere is intense and where there’s nothing more on the line. You want to win every game, but the atmosphere does get through to you.

“You just have to stay relaxed and focused on the game, the fans can’t play the game – it’s down to us. I’m positive that if we bring our ‘A’ game and we’re 100 per cent at it then we can cause them a lot of problems. But it is going to be a difficult game, we know it’s a difficult place to go but we couldn’t be doing much more ourselves with our form going into it.”

When it was put to him that he couldn’t have done much more to claim his place in Saturday’s side, Stokes said: “I could have scored a hat-trick.

“Listen, I think everyone put down a marker against Ayr, you can see everyone is hungry. It’s a great squad, in my opinion it’s a better squad to the one we had at the time of the Cup final. I think there’s greater depth to it, competition for places.

“There’s a lot of experience there, and there’s young lads pushing through too. We are all in it together, it’s a headache for the gaffer but one I’m sure he’d want.”

Stokes is certain to be singled out for special attention by the Rangers fans, not just because of his Celtic connections but those two goals at Hampden which saw him and his team-mates become Hibs legends.

But he believes the presence of Lennon can help take some of the heat off him, joking a repeat of “the gaffer doing that thing with his ears again” will help, a reference to the Hibs boss cupping his hand to his ear as if he couldn’t make out a word the Ibrox crowd were saying on a previous visit.

It is, though, a game which Stokes admitted will excite him although he claimed to feel just the same ahead of Ayr’s visit. He said: “I’m just glad to be back playing my football.

“I came back because my last two spells here I really enjoyed, the football, the club and the people who work in the background. For me it’s been seamless coming back in and I think that showed out on the pitch.

“Maybe Ibrox is the kind of place that brings the best out of me but the Scottish Cup final thing is done.

“Football changes from week to week. I’ve learned that the hard way over the years. You can score seven or eight goals in seven or eight games then have three bad games and the fans turn on you.

“That’s football, You have to take it week by week but I thought we were very professional in the way we approached the Ayr game.”

There’s little doubt Lennon will look to the experience of senior players such as Stokes, Steven Whittaker and Efe Ambrose to play a part at Ibrox but, asked what role he could play, the striker said: “You don’t know how the game is going to pan out.

“We might be three up at half-time and I won’t have to say anything. I’d like to think if it’s getting a bit hectic I could help but we’ll prepare well and do all our homework.”

Whatever happens, Stokes insisted it’s just good to see Hibs back in the top flight after a three-year absence. He said: “With the size of the club and the fan base they deserve to be back in the Premiership.

“The squad last year and previous to that was a Premiership side playing in the Championship so I think the club is back where it should be.”