Anthony Stokes feels he is coming to the boil just in time to make a significant impact for Hibs in Sunday’s League Cup final.
The on-loan Celtic striker concedes that his form has been underwhelming since arriving at Easter Road in January, but explained that there was never much likelihood of him hitting the ground running after five full months without a competitive game for his parent club.
Having been left disappointed by his lacklustre displays in the opening weeks of his time at Hibs, however, the Irish internationalist has sensed a notable improvement in his match sharpness in his last two games, against Queen of the South and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Although he is still not fully up to speed, he feels he has rediscovered enough spark and fitness to cause Ross County some genuine problems at Hampden on Sunday. “I have been a bit frustrated with myself as I came in and scored two goals right away but I knew I was miles off the pace,” he said, speaking as Hibs flew back into Scotland last night following four days at a pre-cup final training camp on the Costa del Sol.
“I was out of the Celtic team for a while so I felt it would take six or seven games to gradually ease myself back in and get going, and I think I’m at that stage now. There’s still a bit to go, but I genuinely think that in the last couple of games I am getting much sharper and fitter. I am playing well and feeling like I am contributing.
“I feel like I am coming on to a game and I would like to think I’m ready to make an impact in the final. I have played in plenty of cup finals and won some and been on the receiving end. It is up to the manager to pick the team but I will work as hard as I can to get the nod.”
Stokes feels like he is gradually getting his career back on track at Easter Road after being frozen out by Celtic manager Ronny Deila prior to his January loan move. He has been invigorated by working under Alan Stubbs and has enjoyed being part of a close-knit Hibs squad. A cup win would merely enhance the feeling that he was right to return to the club that he left to join Celtic in 2010.
“I am just excited to be back playing and I am enjoying my football,” said the 27-year-old. “The manager here and the players are a great bunch of boys and it is a good atmosphere to be around. I am looking forward to Sunday and the opportunity to try and finish the season with a medal.
“One of the reasons I came to Hibs in January was the chance to play in a cup final. The big thing for me was that I thought I could come in and achieve something and win some sort of trophy and medal before the end of the season. At Celtic you get used to winning things and I don’t say that lightly as it is never easy, but, yeah, I came here to try and win more silverware. It was an ambition of mine to do that before the end of the season.
“I haven’t kicked a ball in the League Cup run yet for Hibs, so it will be a strange one for me going in on Sunday as the boys have done all the hard graft to get us there, but hopefully I can contribute in some way to Hibs winning the game.”
The last time Hibs played a cup final, Stokes contributed heavily to them losing it. The Irishman turned in one of his best performances for Celtic as he set up two goals for Gary Hooper in a 3-0 win over Pat Fenlon’s Hibs side in the 2013 Scottish Cup final.
“I remember getting man of the match in that game but Hoops scored two goals and I don’t think he was happy and not getting the award,” he said. “I contributed that day and that was one of my good Hampden memories.
“I had a good season with Hibs before and I never tried to rub it in that time as I enjoyed my year here. It was a strange game because I had such an affinity for Hibs. When you play against an old club you probably push yourself to do a bit better and prove a point. You want to show that you moved on for the right reasons so it was just a case of enjoying that match. We won that cup final comfortably and you always enjoy winning trophies.
“The one thing I take from Celtic is the mentality to win every game and be expected to win trophies. Every player’s ambition is to win matches and perform and be rewarded with some sort of silverware.
“Sunday will be a big occasion. We have a young squad and they are game and I genuinely think we are going into this cup final full of confidence and believing we can win.”
Hibs returned home from Spain last night and will have a training session at East Mains this afternoon before heading through to Mar Hall tomorrow to finalise their preparations for Sunday’s match. Paul Hanlon, Dylan McGeouch, Danny Carmichael and Danny Handling will all miss out through injury, while Fraser Fyvie has an outside chance of being involved as he battles back from medial ligament damage.