Kevin Harper insists there is no need to rush star striker Anthony Stokes back into Hibs’ starting line-up.
The Irishman returned to the side as a first-half substitute in the recent victory over Dundee after missing the three previous matches with an ankle injury.
Stokes being sidelined coincided with Hibs embarking on a four-game winning streak as Martin Boyle, albeit playing primarily wide on the right, and Simon Murray, rediscovered their scoring touch in his absence – both players netting three times in this run.
Prior to his injury, Stokes was widely viewed as undroppable, but restoring the marquee summer signing to the side for this Saturday’s visit of St Johnstone would likely involve Neil Lennon having to drop an on-song Boyle or Murray, or one of the four in-form midfielders, John McGinn, Marvin Bartley, Dylan McGeouch or Brandon Barker.
“The manager will be delighted that he’s got three such good options in attack,” former Hibs striker Harper told the Evening News. “It’s a dilemma but he’s paid to deal with them. The big question at this point in time is, does Stokes go straight back in? In my opinion, probably not purely because the other two are on fire. Stokes is the best striker out of the three, but you don’t really want to change a winning side unless you have to.
“With Stokes coming back from injury, it helps that the others who have been playing up front in his absence are on fire. That means he doesn’t have to force him back into the team. Imagine having Stokes to come off the bench. Boyle can play wide so that’s an option if the manager wanted to bring Stokes back into the fold. If everyone’s fit, a big player is always going to miss out but that’s what every manager wants. They want to have options.”
While Harper would be happy to let Stokes start on the bench this weekend, he is in no doubt that the former Celtic and Blackburn Rovers striker will prove in the longer term that he is still the best available striking option at the club. “When you’ve got Anthony Stokes, the temptation is always to put him in because he’s the standout of the three, in my opinion,” said Harper. “In fact, he’s one of the standout strikers in the Scottish Premiership. When he’s on it, he’s the number one striker at Hibs. He’s the one with the experience and the guile to change a game. He gives you something different from the likes of Murray and Boyle. His hold-up play is much better. He’s not as quick as the other two but he brings Boyle and Murray into play when they play with him. He gives you the threat of a No.9 but he can also drop in and link play.”
Stokes scored eight goals prior to his injury, but there is a consensus that the 2016 Scottish Cup final hero is yet to hit top gear since returning to the club for a third spell in the summer. “Stokes was scoring goals before he got injured but he’s still getting up to speed,” said Harper. “He didn’t really play down at Blackburn and he seemed to be all over the place last season, but his fitness is getting better and better every week. He’s said himself, Neil Lennon is the man who is best at getting him focused and an Anthony Stokes on form is certainly one of the better strikers in the Premiership.”
Meanwhile, Hibs’ development team face Dundee in a top-of-the-table clash at Oriam at 2pm today.