The return of Anthony Stokes may just be a tacit acknowledgement from Hibs boss Alan Stubbs that, despite the much-vaunted strikeforce with which he began the promotion campaign, goals have somehow remained somewhat elusive.
“You can never get enough strikers,” insisted the head coach as the numbers clocked up to the point where he had on hand last season’s top scorer Jason Cummings, Dominique Malonga, James Keatings, Farid El Alagui, Martin Boyle and Jamie Insall supplemented by the on-loan arrivals of Henri Anier and Islam Feruz.
However, scratch beneath the surface and Stubbs’ options were a little thinner than perceived. Certainly, Cummings has carried on where he left off, his equaliser against Falkirk on Sunday being his 17th goal of the season while Malonga and Keatings have also contributed albeit on a much lesser scale.
Elsewhere, though, it’s been a different story. El Alagui continues to battle for full fitness following the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered 17 months ago and he has been restricted to no more than a couple of cameo appearances, Boyle, while a handy player to have around, can’t be regarded as a prolific frontman.
Insall, currently on loan at East Fife, has always been regarded as a long-term project signing from non-league football in England while Anier and Feruz have come and gone, back with their parent clubs, Dundee United and Chelsea respectively having made no more than substitute appearances although the Estonian internationalist played a vital role in gaining points against Falkirk and then Queen of the South.
The upshot, though is clear. Hibs haven’t scored anywhere near as many goals as might have been expected, their total of 34 in 20 Championship matches the lowest of the three title contenders with table-topping Rangers having regularly claimed three and four in a game to accumulate a tally of 61.
A defence as tight as any in the top two tiers of Scottish football has undoubtedly played as much part as the goals scored in ensuring the Capital outfit remain in contention for the title although both they and Falkirk now lie five points adrift of Rangers following a second consecutive 1-1 draw between the clubs.
Chris Dagnall, top scorer at Leyton Orient last season before his sojourn into the embryonic Indian Super League, has already signed to add more potency in attack.
But it is little wonder Hibs supporters are salivating at the prospect of having Stokes, now 27, back in their version of green and white, recalling the prolific partnership he and Derek Riordan struck up – 41 goals between them – first time round. There’s no Riordan now, of course, but no doubt Hibs fans will be hoping Stokes can strike up just as profitable a relationship with Cummings.
That remains to be seen, but Cummings for one believes he and Stokes can strike fear into the heart of opposition defences, believing the presence of the Republic of Ireland frontman and his reputation alone will not only create havoc but also, with the attention turned on the former Arsenal, Falkirk and Sunderland man, leave more space for him to continue racking up the goals.
Cummings has continued scoring despite clearly being Hibs’ No.1 threat to date, the result being concerted attempts to shackle him with two, three and more players ensuring they are in close attendance every time he’s in possession.
But now he’s looking forward to teaming up with Stokes, saying: “He’s a top player and it will be good to play with him. I think I will learn a lot from him, it’s exciting.
“He’s been in the game for a while now and young boys like myself will watch and learn. He’s a top striker and I’ve no doubt he’ll bring goals. You can understand why the fans are excited, he’s going to be a big threat. I’ve watched him a few times and his all-round game is different class. He’ll definitely put a fear into defenders, they’ll be panicking.”
Cummings insisted though that Hibs’ other front men shouldn’t be forgotten, adamant they can all play a part in reeling in Rangers once again.
He said: “We’ve a great squad, especially up front. Chris has come in and it’s evident he’s different class but we’ve got a lot of quality in attack and like anyone I will have to fight to keep my place. The fact that both Henri and Islam found it difficult to get much game time while they were here proves the quality of striker we have and the fact it’s hard to get your game at Hibs.”
Cummings candidly admitted he should have ensured Rangers’ advantage at the top of the table should today only be three points rather than five, furious at himself for not taking the opportunity to claim what would most probably have proved to be the winner against Falkirk when Liam Henderson’s pass left him with only Bairns goalkeeper Danny Rogers to beat – which he didn’t.
He said: “I apologised to the boys for not taking that one. I was gutted not to win the game for us and I’ll be thinking about it for a few days, believe me.
“Having 17 goals is great, obviously I want to beat last season’s total and I am getting close to doing that with plenty of games left but it should have been 18 or possibly even 19. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do better but I wasn’t good enough if I’m being honest.”
While, as Falkirk boss Peter Houston conceded, Rangers were the big winners, Cummings insisted he and his team-mates remain confident of getting back on terms with the Ibrox side having already pulled back an eight-point deficit earlier in the season.
He said: “There’s still a lot of games to go. Rangers have to come to Easter Road again and they’ve still to play Falkirk home and away while we’ve got Falkirk at home once more.
“So five points isn’t too great a hurdle. You can catch that up in a couple of games and hopefully we can do that.”
The current transfer window has put Cummings in the spotlight with a host of clubs said to be tracking his progress and ready to pounce although Stubbs has made it clear any approach won’t be welcome. But, the player insisted, as far as he’s concerned it’s business as usual. He said: “It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I see it as a massive compliment which, if anything, makes me more confident. I’m alright with that.”