BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
HIBS star Anthony Stokes is adamant he has rediscovered his killer touch in time to torment Hearts after overcoming a case of festive fatigue with a gruelling gym schedule.
Prior to his fine header in Saturday’s 2-1 triumph over Ross County, Stokes had failed to find the net for Hibs in December and, more alarmingly for the Ireland internationalist, his sharpness, acceleration and fitness were simply not what they should have been.
The 29-year-old was honest enough to concede that he had been off the pace in recent weeks during a meeting with the club’s medical staff, led by head of sports science and medicine Nathan Ring and strength and conditioning coach Paul Green, and he was swiftly given extra work to do.
From squats to cardio, Stokes put in the additional hours throughout last week and arguably turned in his most complete display of the season against County.
“I felt really good at the weekend,” explained Stokes. “Last week, I actually went to see the fitness coaches at Hibs because over the last couple of weeks I just hadn’t felt like I had the sharpness or fitness about me that I needed.
“After that, I’ve been doing a bit of extra work in the gym and after training – and it paid off against County.
“I felt as if I had a spring in my step. So that’s something that I need to maintain. I was doing gym work, some squats, some stand-ups off the boards, a bit of fitness work as well. The previous two or three weeks, I felt like I didn’t have a kick to get away from players.
“Obviously it was a tough period for us, even mentally, but I felt a bit fatigued going into the 60th minute of game. I wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe I just needed that extra bit of work.”
Stokes’ belief in his own conditioning is matched by his confidence in the Hibs squad as they prepare to enter the Gorgie cauldron.
Edinburgh has been green-and-white of late, with the Easter Road outfit unbeaten in nine fixtures against Hearts, stretching back to August 2014, and having knocked their old foes out of the Scottish Cup in each of the last two campaigns. Moreover, they boast a five-point lead over the Jambos in the Premiership.
So while Stokes accepts that derbies are rarely fluent, predictable affairs, he reckons the better team should win. That side, he asserts, is Hibs.
“It’s been mainly Hibs for a while now,” he continued. “I think we have to back ourselves – because the league table doesn’t lie. Our form has been good, one blip at Aberdeen aside and after the performance and result at the weekend, everything looks a lot brighter.
“Derbies tend not to have much free-flowing football, they are all about desire. But the better players, nine times out of ten, still come out on top and I fancy our squad, I really do.”
In order to claim a precious victory Hibs will, however, need to do what no team has done in six hours and 20 minutes of top-flight football: score against Hearts.
Craig Levein has brought structure and resilience to the men in maroon following the shambolic reign of Ian Cathro and, as well as their recent miserly defensive displays, they have racked up six games unbeaten and dazzled in a 4-0 win over Celtic.
Nothing would bring Stokes greater joy than puncturing that new-found feel-good factor and silencing Tynecastle, which hosts its first derby since the new main stand saw the capacity rise to north of 20,000.
“Scoring in front of the new main stand? That would be nice,” smiled Stokes. “Athough I’ll take a goal at either end of the park, to be fair.
“Tynecastle is good. I’ve always enjoyed playing there, it’s always a great atmosphere. I get pelters, but I don’t mind that. These are the sort of games you look to on the fixture list and say: ‘That’ll be a good one.’ Especially at this time of year, the fans will be up for it. And so are we.”
Away from the significance of bragging rights in the capital, Hibs also remain firmly in the mix to be crowned best of the rest, sitting six points behind second-placed Aberdeen.
“I think we’ve put ourselves in a great position this year,” added Stokes. “If we can win the derby and get a good result against Kilmarnock, the start of 2018 will look very bright for us.”