BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Anthony Stokes reckons he can gatecrash Ireland’s squad for this summer’s European Championships by firing Hibernian back to the Premiership.
The 27-year-old is determined to kick-start his career during a loan spell at Easter Road after being frozen out by Celtic boss Ronny Deila.
Despite making just two appearances for the Hoops this season, Stokes, who boasts nine caps for the Emerald Isle, was named in the provisional 30-man squad for their recent playoff against Bosnia.
He ultimately didn’t make the final cut for the tie, however Ireland boss Martin O’Neill is known to be an admirer of the player. And Stokes has not given up on being one of the 23 players selected for the showpiece in France.
He said: “Going to the Championships with Ireland would be unbelievable – and it is down to me and my performances. I think it is in my hands now.
“I have been involved in most Irish squads since I was 17 and 18, and it is one of the biggest things I will always look back on in my career. To represent your country is one of the highest honours.
“I have been lucky enough to win a lot of medals with Celtic and I won the Championship with Sunderland, but to represent your country has to be at the very top of your list.
“Even in the last six months, when I have not been playing regularly, I have been on standby, so it is nice to know that he is still thinking about me. Martin O’Neill has been very fair with me on everything.
“I want to get back on with my football and hopefully something can happen with that. It comes down to me performing, playing well and keeping myself in the best shape possible.”
Stokes will have plenty of opportunity to impress, with the former Sunderland striker set to be pitched straight into a fraught title battle with Rangers and Falkirk, as well as an upcoming Edinburgh derby and League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone.
Such high-profile fixtures influenced his decision to spurn advances for the likes of Dundee United, Inverness, Rotherham United and MK Dons. However, returning to familiar surroundings was also a major factor, having scored 24 goals in his first spell in the capital.
He continued: “I had options in the English Championship and in the Scottish Premiership but I had a good feeling when Hibs were on the phone and everyone spoke very highly of Alan Stubbs.
“I know the club and I know a lot of the players here. You have to consider, when you are looking at a four month loan, about going to a team where you think you will settle in straight away. I was always swaying towards Hibs.
“I want to be back playing football, playing games and enjoying my football. There are big games coming up – Hearts in the cup, Rangers in March – and I can’t wait.”
Stokes is also buoyed by the prospect of teaming up with fellow Celtic loanees Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeough – even if the latter denied him his favoured number 10 jersey.
He joked: “I was asking Dylan [McGeouch] for the number 10 jersey as soon as I walked through the door but he wouldn’t give it to me, so that didn’t get off to the best start!
“I spoke to them before coming here and I think they realised my heart was set on coming back to Hibs.
“They are two very good players. Hendo [Liam Henderson] is a great player and has played a few first team games for Celtic. You could see as soon as he came into training at Celtic the quality he had.
“Dylan is the same, he just needed to get out and play games. He didn’t get many opportunities at Celtic. It has been a great experience for them and they have done brilliantly this season.”
Stokes will join Henderson, McGeouch and Co. in the squad to face St Mirren on Saturday as Hibs attempt to eat up the ground on Rangers in the Championship title race.
He added: “That’s what you have to do in run-ins for titles, just keep putting pressure on the opposition and see who comes out on top.
“But If we win the league here, it won’t be down to me it will be down to the team. Look at the position they’re in already this season. They’re only five points off Rangers.
“Whether I was here or wasn’t here, they’d have an opportunity to cut that gap at the weekend. It’s a good young team, they’re creative and I’m just hoping there are plenty of chances made to put the ball in the back of the net and get some good results.”