As a man who prides himself on his prolific scoring record in Scotland, Anthony Stokes is encouraged by the way his third spell at Hibs has started.
Four goals in four starts, including strikes in each of his last two Premiership matches, mean the Irish striker heads to McDiarmid Park to face St Johnstone tomorrow in confident mood. After a difficult year at Blackburn Rovers in which he barely featured, Stokes – who has scored more than 100 goals in Scotland with Falkirk, Hibs and Celtic – knows he still has some way to go until he is firing on all cylinders.
However, he already feels he is significantly sharper than in the early part of his previous stint at Hibs, when he arrived midway through the 2015/16 campaign and struggled to hit top gear until his man-of-the-match performance in the Scottish Cup final against Rangers four months later.
“I’m happy with the start I’ve made,” Stokes told the Evening News. “I obviously hadn’t played for a long time before I came back, so I’ve needed to get back up to speed and get some match fitness, and I feel like I’m slowly getting there. I think I’ve got into the run of it quickly enough.
“It was very difficult to get up to speed the last time I was here.
“When I came in I was miles off it and we were at a crucial stage of the season, scrapping for every point. I actually found the Championship harder to play in than the Premiership. I just wasn’t up to the pace until the last five or six games. All the other guys had already played half a season and were up to speed, whereas now I’ve been in from near enough the start of the season, when all the other boys are still getting up to speed as well. I’m on more of a level playing field now.
“Although my pre-season wasn’t great, I’m getting plenty games now and I always find that the best way to get your fitness is by playing games. I’m delighted with how things have gone so far but I need to maintain it and be consistent. I want to score as many goals as I can. As a striker, if you’re scoring goals, it brings confidence, but ultimately your fitness dictates your performance. You need to be sharp and able to go for 90 minutes. I feel good at the minute. Everything’s going in the right direction.”
Stokes has rediscovered a sense of contentment since signing up for a third spell with Hibs five weeks ago. His team’s bright start to the Premiership campaign, with seven points from four games, has reinforced the 29-year-old’s belief that returning to Easter Road to work under Neil Lennon, the man who got the best out of him at Celtic, was the correct call.
“It’s been easy coming back because I’ve been here twice previously and I know the majority of the players and the backroom staff,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I came back, because I wanted to be in an environment I’m comfortable in and enjoy my football, and that’s been the case since I walked back in the door.
“We’ve had a great start. We were disappointed with the home game against Hamilton, but overall it’s been a very good start. Even in the last game against Dundee, the performance was excellent; we just need to be a bit more ruthless in front of goal. We could have had another couple of points on the board, but if we keep pressing on and improving, I’m sure we’ll have a very successful season.”
Stokes’ enjoyment of his current spell at Hibs has been enhanced by the extra warmth he has detected from supporters since returning to the club as the two-goal hero of their Scottish Cup triumph 16 months ago. “I probably get stopped a little bit more on the streets going around Edinburgh than I did before,” he said. “As a Celtic fan all my life, winning my first title at Celtic was the best thing that’s happened in my career. But the cup final with Hibs was something I’ll never forget. I watch the highlights now and again – it’s one of those days you’ll probably only get once in your career.
“When I finish my career, it’ll be something nice to look back on but I’d like to think I can give the fans something to cheer about this year.
“It’s all about the season ahead. You can’t live on past glories. It was a great day and it was one I’ll never forget but I know if I have three or four bad games on the bounce, the supporters will be quick to let me know about it. It’s down to what I do now. My aim is to get over 20 goals this season and have a successful season with Hibs, and I see no reason why we can’t do that.”