BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
ANTHONY STOKES has warned Rangers supporters that their hostility will only serve to inspire him as the Hibs hero attempts to torment the Glasgow giants again.
Stokes, 29, wrote his name into Easter Road folklore when the sides last met, bagging a brace in their 3-2 Scottish Cup final triumph – ending 114 years of hurt for the Hibees.
However, one of the most entertaining Hampden showpieces of recent years ended in controversy, with the full-time whistle prompting a pitch invasion and subsequent ugly clashes between supporters.
With that afternoon fresh in the memory, it is likely to be a powder-keg atmosphere in Govan this weekend. The hype is exacerbated by Stokes’ Celtic pedigree – boasting a prolific six-year stint at Parkhead on his CV – but the Irishman is adamant he can handle the heat.
He said: “I’m excited about Rangers but, then again, I was excited about playing Ayr. I’m just glad to be back playing football and I really enjoy it at Hibs.
“I prefer games like that (Rangers) with an intense atmosphere. There shouldn’t be more on the line – because you should want to win every game – but the atmosphere does get through to you.
“You just need to stay relaxed and focus on the football. The fans can’t play the game for you. It’s up to us and I’m positive if we bring our A-game and we’re 100 per cent at it then we can cause them problems.
“Maybe Ibrox is the kind of place that brings the best out of me. The Scottish Cup final stuff is done and this will be a different, difficult game and at a tough venue, but we couldn’t be doing much more with our form coming into the game.”
While Stokes’ every touch is likely to be met by a chorus of jeers, that will pale in comparison to the welcome awaiting head coach Neil Lennon at the home of his old foes.
It will represent Lennon’s first return to Ibrox since an ill-tempered 3-2 defeat in 2012 which saw three players sent off, and the striker has joked that his gaffer could take some of the pressure off the players by producing a repeat of his famous cupped ears celebration of 2011 – as a smiling Stokes watched on.
He laughed: “The gaffer could take the heat off me – especially if he does that thing with his ears again!
“But we’ll prepare well and do our homework. We’ll see what happens on the day. It’s just good to see Hibs back where they belong, in the Premiership and playing in these huge matches.”
Lennon has conceded that he has a selection headache for the Rangers clash after Stokes scored twice against Ayr United on Tuesday evening in his first start since returning to the club for a third stint.
Simon Murray also notched his ninth goal in six matches, while Martin Boyle – so impressive in their Premiership opener against Partick Thistle – was an unused substitute.
And Stokes admits he is enthused by the form of Murray following his summer arrival from Dundee United.
He added: “He’s a clever player. He works hard, he’s hungry. You can see he’s always in and around the goal. He’s got an eye for it.
“He’s absolutely flying at the minute so I don’t need to tell him anything. He’s finding the back of the net and that’s what it’s all about as a striker. He’s the focal point right now.”