Anthony Stokes admits he simply hates being asked to play the role of lone striker, so he had nothing but admiration for the way 19-year-old Oli Shaw led Hibs’ frontline as they bounced back from a trying week to claim a much-needed win over Ross County.
Easter Road boss Neil Lennon admitted he’d made a late call in deciding to pitch Shaw in from the start with Hibs having won only one of their previous six matches, the momentum appearing to swing in favour of Capital rivals Hearts as the second Edinburgh derby of the season loomed every larger.
And his hunch paid off, the youngster turning in a performance which not only impressed his boss but team-mate Stokes, ten years his elder, Shaw capping off his display with the goal which clinched a 2-1 win.
“Oli was brilliant,” declared the Republic of Ireland internationalist. “He was great, the focal point for us. He held the ball up and brought players into the game and as a centre-forward that is all you can ask for.
“There were 60/40 balls you did not fancy him to get but he was coming out on top, winning flick-downs which makes a massive, massive difference to the team.
“It’s very difficult to lead the line on your own. I have never really enjoyed doing it myself, playing up front. It is a slog, but he made it look very easy.”
Lennon revealed Shaw’s performance had given him food for thought ahead of tomorrow night’s trip to Tynecastle with Simon Murray, the club’s leading marksman and scorer of the only goal of the game in the first derby of the season, relegated to the role of substitute.
But Stokes has little doubt the kid can handle the occasion, pointing to how he’d twice stepped from the bench to score against Celtic, adding: “When you are that age, you go and do your own thing. There’s no fear, you are running on adrenalin.
“Oli is improving. He’s done very well in previous games coming on and scoring against Celtic but this was a great all-round performance.”
Stokes’ own display caught the eye. A player who has looked out of sorts and shown only passing glimpses of his undoubted ability much to the exasperation of Lennon and supporters alike, produced 90 minutes which, claimed his boss, showed he was “back to his best”.
The secret, however, insisted 29-year-old Stokes, was nothing more than a little bit of hard work having sought the assistance of fitness coach Paul Green. He said: “The last two or three weeks I just felt I did not have that sharpness about me. I’d not been able to get away from players and was feeling a bit fatigued going 50 or 60 minutes into games.
“I’m not sure what it was, maybe I needed some extra work so I went to see the fitness coach at the start of the week and did some extra work in the gym and after training and I felt it paid off. I felt like I had a spring in my step again. It’s something I need to keep up and maintain.”
A rejuvenated Stokes, who claimed his tenth goal of the season as he rose above County defender Marcus Fraser to head home the equaliser after Craig Curran had opened the scoring against the run of play for the Dingwall outfit, would be a huge bonus for Hibs going into the second half of the season.
On this occasion, he was bang on his game, strong and hungry. One sumptuous crossfield pass, which left Martin Boyle with a glorious opportunity to get on the scoresheet, summed up the vision and ability he has to deliver moments which, as Lennon has often mentioned, can turn games.
Again, though, this was a match which Hibs dominated – 59 per cent possession, ten shots on target to County’s three and ten corners to one – but were made to work hard for their win, Staggies goalkeeper Scott Fox admitting it had been “backs-to-the-wall” stuff for Owen Coyle’s side as they tried to hang on for a point only for Shaw’s goal to send them plummeting to the foot of the table.
Conceding he and his team-mates could have made life a bit easier for themselves, Stokes nevertheless underlined the importance of simply winning. He said: “We wanted to bounce back and show we had a bit about us after last week and I think we did that.
“Last week (a 4-1 defeat at Aberdeen) was tough for us. We’d put a lot into the Wednesday game [against Rangers] and should have won then finishing off with the Aberdeen match but we’ve bounced back with, I felt, an outstanding performance.”
Once more the pace of Brandon Barker – who supplied the low cross for Shaw to steer home at the front post – and Boyle terrorised the opposition defence, stretching them on either flank, County attempting to counter the threat they posed by getting everyone bar striker Billy Mckay behind the ball.
But, just as the home fans were beginning to let their anxiety show, Barker raced to the byeline for Shaw, who had scored another two for Hibs’ development squad a few days earlier, to show his predatory instinct by getting across his man to claim the points.
Reason enough for a bit of Christmas cheer, but news of results elsewhere raised spirits even further, Hearts’ draw with St Johnstone pushing the Easter Road outfit five points ahead of Craig Levein’s side while defeats for both Rangers and Aberdeen keeps fourth-placed Hibs still very much in the mix for that runners-up spot behind Celtic.
Lennon said: “I thought we were fantastic. It was a very good performance and a very good result. I know the league table will tell a different story, but County are a good side. It was a tough game, we had to be patient, we missed some good chances but our heads did not drop and we got what we deserved.
“It was important to win as we’d only won one in six although I felt we had deserved more. It was important to keep the pressure on the teams around us and we have done that. It’s a tough league – we are finding our feet. We are playing well at times, at other times we find it difficult, But we are in a healthy position which is very pleasing.”