BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hibs first-team coach John Doolan has demanded more from Anthony Stokes despite insisting he is finally displaying the sharpness which was sorely lacking following his arrival from Celtic.
The 27-year-old joined on loan from the Hoops in January after four months in cold storage, having made just two appearances under Ronny Deila in the first half of the campaign.
He bagged two goals in his opening two matches for the Hibees, but acknowledged himself that he was miles off match fitness after being frozen out for so long at Parkhead.
After enduring a seven-game goalless streak, and copping criticism in the process, Stokes has notched four goals in his last five matches, including a pivotal equaliser in Tuesday evening’s 2-1 win over Livingston.
Doolan sees heartening signs that Stokes is getting back to his best, nevertheless he believes the Irishman must find another gear if he is going to fire the club to Championship and Scottish Cup success.
He said: “He’s come in and scored important goals already and he’s undoubtedly a top player. He gives us something a bit different at that top end. We’d like to see it on a more regular basis, to get us where we need to be.
“He knows himself – and we’ve had chats with him about it – that he can do a lot more.
“He was short [of sharpness] when he came in and you have to manage him in the right way. But he’s getting there. As you saw in the last 45 minutes against Livingston, he was putting a shift in right across the back four.
“When he came in, he wasn’t sharp at all. He wasn’t fit. We’ve got him to a level of fitness now which is good enough – but he still needs to do more. He has got a bit sharper . . . but he needs to be even more sharp.”
And Doolan believes Stokes will come into his own towards the tail-end of the campaign, as his fitness peaks and his experience of massive occasions with Celtic comes to the fore.
The former Wigan first-team coach continued: “He is a big game player, having played for Celtic. Stokesy is going to be a big part of what happens for the rest of our season.
“You always want a guy like Stokesy in your team as he has come from Celtic and has played in massive games.
“He wants to succeed. That is why he came here – he knows what this club is all about as he has been here before. He had other offers from good clubs that he could not gone to but he didn’t and he wants to be successful here.”
Meanwhile, Doolan has confirmed that the Hibees coaching team will consider handing 22-year-old goalkeeper Otso Virtanen his first start for the club against Alloa.
Regular number one Mark Oxley is suspended for next Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United after picking up his second yellow card of the competition against Inverness in the quarter-final.
That means Virtanen, a January arrival from Finnish side IFK Mariehamn, will be pitched into action at Hampden.
Should Hibs decide to give the youngster 90 minutes prior to that outing, tomorrow’s encounter against already-relegated Alloa is a more risk-free opportunity to do so than Tuesday’s crunch Championship clash against Falkirk.
And, while not ruling out the possibility of pitching Virtanen into the semi-final with just six minutes of first-team action under his belt, Doolan confirmed it is a discussion he will have with Stubbs.
He said: “I think you have got to try to play your best team available, but it is probably important he gets some game-time. We’ll probably have a chat with the manager and see what we think.
“Will it be this weekend? I don’t know. The Falkirk game is a massive game, too, so we need to it down and have a chat.
“Then again, it’s one of those where we might just throw him in on the day of the game and he could have an unbelievable game, keep a clean sheet and win it for us!
“I think he’ll cope, from what I have seen up to now he has looked good on the training ground.”