BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Asked to reminisce about his previous triumphs at Hampden, Hibernian striker Anthony Stokes pauses for a moment before laughing ‘I get mixed up with the cups during my time at Celtic’. Not a bad problem to have.
That is certainly not an issue for most of the members of a youthful Hibernian side or, for that matter, their long-suffering supporters, who last saw their side lift a trophy in 2007.
It is precisely that winning mentality; the feeling that claiming major honours is an obligation rather than a bonus, which Stokes hopes to bring to Sunday’s League Cup final against Ross County.
The 27-year-old has always been a prolific marksman north of the border, plundering 16 goals in just three months with Falkirk and becoming a firm fans’ favourite at Easter Road by netting 22 times during the 2009/10 campaign. However, it was his £1.2 switch to Celtic Park in 2010 which saw him start to stack up the silverware.
The Ireland international boasts four top-flight titles, two Scottish Cup and a League Cup win during almost six years with the Hoops; a period which has seen him score 76 goals.
Parkhead boss Ronny Deila does not seem to be a fan – “he obviously doesn’t rate me,” Stokes has noted previously – but his record in front of goal is hard to argue with.
And having thrived for large periods under the crushing weight of expectation at Celtic, he knows second place is nowhere on Sunday.
“The one thing I take from Celtic is the mentality to win every game and you are expected win trophies,” said Stokes. “And I genuinely think that we are going into this cup final full of confidence and in the belief we can win.
“One of the reasons I joined Hibs in January was the chance to play in a cup final. The big thing for me was that I thought I could come in and achieve something and win a medal before the end of the season.
“At Celtic you get used to winning things – and I don’t say that lightly, as it is never easy. I came here to try and win more silverware and it was an ambition of mine to do that before the end of the season.”
Having only arrived on loan from Celtic in January after being frozen out by Deila, Stokes is keen to pay tribute to the players who got the side this far, noting “I haven’t kicked a ball in the tournament for Hibs.”
Nevertheless, he is adamant he can contribute in a major way as he slowly finds his match sharpness. Stokes scored in his first two outings back at Hibs after climbing off the bench against St Mirren and Morton, yet he concedes he was was far from his best.
However, in recent weeks he has felt like his fitness levels are finally catching up with his undoubted technical ability.
“I think I have been a bit frustrated with myself as I came in and scored two goals right away but I knew I was miles off the pace,” he admits. “I genuinely think that in the last couple of games I am getting much sharper and fitter. I feel like I am contributing.
“I have been out of the Celtic first team fold for a while but I am feeling somewhere back to my best. I felt it would take six or seven games to gradually ease myself back in and get going. I am at that stage now.
“The backbone of the team is in a cup final because of the squad they have here and that was nothing to do with me. I will do my best to help them out in getting over the line.”
With focus fully on the upcoming cup final, Stokes, who claimed man of the match when the Hoops defeated Hibs 3-0 in the 2013 Scottish Cup final, was reluctant to discuss his own future at Celtic.
But he does hope Sunday can be the catalyst for ending a challenging campaign in spectacular fashion. He might even get to experience an open-top bus.
“I am just excited to be back playing and I am enjoying my football,” he adds. “I am looking forward to Sunday and the opportunity to try and finish the season with a medal.
“I have never been on an open top bus tour and that would be something special in Edinburgh. I don’t think you would get away with that kind of thing in Glasgow!”