It was almost as if he’d never been away. Anthony Stokes bade farewell to Hibs five-and-a-half years ago in typical style, scoring the opener in what turned out to be a 3-2 win against Motherwell at Fir Park.
Now he has been welcomed back in similar fashion, the Republic of Ireland striker marking his return to Easter Road – albeit on loan until the end of the season from Celtic - by notching the goal which clinched an important victory over St Mirren, one which allowed Alan Stubbs’ players to retake second place in the Championship table and trim Rangers’ lead, at least for a short period, to two points.
As a proven goalscorer who has found himself on the periphery of Hoops boss Ronny Deila’s plans, Stokes has obviously been brought back to the Capital with the fervent hope he can replicate his first spell at the club – when he scored 24 goals in just 47 appearances – and so boost Hibs’ bid for promotion.
Boss Stubbs has, of course, gone on record to point out Hibs remain in the hunt for a treble, this weekend’s League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone followed by a return visit to Tynecastle to take on arch-rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup.
Stubbs has also admitted to being greedy in indulging in such talk but, should he succeed on just the one front, taking Hibs back into the Premiership at the second time of asking, then that will be enough.
Whether Stokes can replicate his astonishing strike-rate remains to be seen given this was his first action since August but the immediate signs were promising.
Already denied a goal when Saints substitute Jordan Stewart blocked a shot intended for the far corner of goalkeeper Jamie Langfield’s net, Stokes was there in the final minute to turn an inviting pass from James Keatings, who’d also enjoyed a late introduction into the action, into the empty net.
Although Hibs had appeared destined to take all three points in any case, there was still a slight apprehension around Easter Road, Stevie Mallan’s free-kick in added-on time at the end of the first half having taken the shine off the two goals scored earlier by Liam Henderson and John McGinn.
Stokes, who had received a rapturous welcome from the home support as he took over from Chris Dagnall, put any such worries to bed and, believes Henderson – himself also on loan from Celtic – it will be the first of many, predicting the 27-year-old will strike up a prolific partnership with top scorer Jason Cummings.
He said: “Everybody knows what Stokesy is about. He’s a great addition to the squad. I’m sure he will score plenty of goals. You could see when he came on the fans were up, it gives everybody a big lift because he is a quality player.
“Jason is destined for the top and I am sure playing alongside Stokesy will help him.”
While the Hibs support will no doubt look to Stokes over the next couple of weekends, Stubbs urged them to apply a little dose of realism to their expectations, pointing out: “We have him for three or four months, not three or four weeks.
“We want him to be fit for that length of time so we will slowly build him up. But seeing him score didn’t surprise me – it was probably the headline everyone was wanting.”
Having endured slow starts in recent weeks, Hibs were back on song from the first whistle in this one, Henderson putting them ahead after only nine minutes with as good a free-kick as you’ll see all season, the 19-year-old picking himself up after being dumped on the turf by Saints defender Jack Baird to send a fantastic shot from 25 yards across Langfield and into the top left-hand corner of his net.
As far as Henderson was concerned, it was a case of practice makes perfect, the midfielder revealing: “Keats and I practice after training – he goes for power. I am more about placement. But it was nice for it to pay off.”
Henderson’s strike saw him race to the dug-out to embrace Keatings, someone he knows from their time together at Celtic Park but, while joking it was a touch of “Bromance”, he insisted the reason behind his celebration would remain between the two of them.
He said: “I’m close to him, he’s the first to try to help me improve my game. We are the best of mates.”
Hibs could easily have been further ahead before McGinn struck against his old club, Cummings forcing Langfield into a decent save with a shot from range which took a vicious bounce in front of the goalkeeper before “Clangers” managed to get a boot to his low shot after he’d raced in behind the Buddies’ defence to meet Lewis Stevenson’s through ball.
McGinn himself saw a powerful shot pushed away, as did Dagnall, before the Scotland Under-21 skipper rounded off a neat passing move involving Stevenson, Henderson and Cummings to seemingly put the match beyond Alex Rae’s side.
Mallan’s strike, however, gave the Paisley team cause for hope and left Stubbs admitting: “I was very pleased for the majority of the game, apart from a minute before half-time. That apart, though, it was a really good performance.”
It certainly was, with the pace, movement and vision of Henderson, McGinn and Fraser Fyvie in the middle of the park stretching a St Mirren defence which, as so often happens when teams pitch up at Easter Road, made sure every possible body was behind the ball when Hibs were in possession.
If Mallan’s goal had introduced a little uncertainty it didn’t show, Langfield touching over a Paul Hanlon header, Saints striker Lawrence Shankland diligent in his defensive duties as he appeared from nowhere to take the Hibs defender’s header off his line before Langfield knew little about a McGinn effort which caught his heel and zipped across the face of goal and out.
Liam Fontaine headed over when he might have done better but then came the moment everyone had been waiting for, Stokes having already made a promising contribution, tapping home the easiest of chances with Keatings having done the spadework – his 25th goal in the green and white of Hibs.
Stubbs said: “I thought some of our attacking play was good. We created a lot of chances, there were a couple of goal-line clearances, saves from the goalkeeper, one or two misses from defenders – it could have been a lot more.”
Now, though, it is on to that double-header at Tynecastle, and Henderson is well aware that should Hibs dump St Johnstone as they did nine years ago at the same stage of the competition and at the same venue, both he and Stokes would be ineligible to play should Celtic also make the final.
Claiming he’d be asking Deila to allow him to play if that scenario were to arise, Henderson, insisted he’s looking no further ahead than Saturday.
He said: “I’m not even thinking about the final – the full concentration is on St Johnstone.
“We’ve done well against Premiership clubs [Hibs have beaten both Aberdeen and Dundee United] and I think it suits us playing them. They are more open, they come out and play.
“We’ll get our heads down this week and I am sure the gaffer and his staff will come up with a game plan.”