Stokes: Hibs cup win surpassed all I achieved at Celtic
His return to the green and white of Hibs last summer signalled the start of his third spell with the Edinburgh club, a decision made in the face of opportunities to take up far more lucrative offers from as far afield as India and China.
There was, of course, a familiarity to be had closer to home, not only the comfort of bedding in again at a club where he will forever be regarded as a legend thanks to his two goals in that historic Scottish Cup triumph, but the presence of Neil Lennon, his manager for much of a medal-laden spell with his boyhood favourites, Celtic.
However, as far as Stokes was concerned, it represented a chance to simply enjoy his football again having fallen out of favour in Glasgow under Lennon’s successor Ronny Deila before switching to Blackburn when the Norwegian was replaced by Brendan Rodgers, who made it clear the Dublin-born player wouldn’t feature in his plans.
The move to Lancashire, though, proved such a disaster his contract was terminated, leaving Lennon to persuade him of the merits of rejoining a club which was reacquainting itself with Premiership football following a three-year exile in the Championship.
Declaring himself settled at last to the extent he wouldn’t rule out the notion of ending his career at Hibs, the 29-year-old said: “I could have gone to different clubs for more money but I wanted to come back because I know the environment, all the players and I am settled in Scotland.
“I wanted to come back. It was more for the personal side to come back to Edinburgh, be happy, get back playing my football. I’ve been in and out pretty much since Ronny Deila came in, I went to Blackburn, it didn’t work out and I just wanted to get back enjoying my football.”
While he is doing so, Stokes admitted he wasn’t entirely happy with how he had performed so far this season even if Hibs have taken many by surprise, going into their winter break training camp on the Algarve sitting in fourth place.
He said: “I don’t think I’ve set the world alight. I have always said look at my stats, 20 [goals] is a minimum for a season and I already have 11, so I am reasonably happy. But I think I should have more to be perfectly honest.
“It’s been a bit of a mixed season. There are games where I have played really well and not scored, others where I have not been too happy with my performance but nicked a goal here and there. Hopefully I can push on in the second half of the season.”
In a chequered career which has also taken him to Arsenal, Falkirk, Sunderland and a number of points in between, Stokes insisted he has always been willing to roll with the punches, saying: “It’s difficult, but sometimes things happen for a reason. It was not ideal for Hibs not being promoted but capping it off by winning the Scottish Cup was.
“I went to Blackburn, it didn’t work out for a couple of reasons but that’s football, You just have to pick yourself back up and get on with it. I have been in this situation before.
“It was similar to the first time I signed for Hibs. I’d gone to Sunderland, done reasonably well and I was out of the team for a year, maybe a year and a half, but I got my career back on track and moved on from there.”
Although it is obvious Lennon and Stokes have a healthy mutual respect, they have had their moments, a training ground spat a few weeks ago ending with the player being ordered home and dropped for a trip to Hamilton.
Stokes, however, made light of the incident, revealing the history between the pair goes back to the days when he began making a name for himself while on loan at Falkirk, one of his first encounters with Lennon ending with the Celtic midfielder being sent off.
“To be honest, in my opinion that was nothing,” he claimed of their most recent falling out. “The gaffer has spoken about it. I’m not going to go into detail, but as far as I am concerned I didn’t do anything wrong, it was a misunderstanding. The gaffer has his own way and like any manager he’s not going to change his mind.
“He’s the type of person who will have it out with you and then it’s done, and people respect that. I think I am a bit like that myself. I can have an argument but then you move on, don’t dwell on it.
“The gaffer is a bit like that but he is the manager and you have to respect every decision he makes. He makes the call and you have to get on with it.”
Lennon has claimed to have mellowed since quitting the pressurised life of being Celtic boss, but Stokes insisted if that’s the case then it hasn’t changed his approach to management.
“He sets high expectations for himself and everyone else,” he said. “ I think he looks at every player performing at his best and if you are not there he’s going to tell you although I think he understands you can’t play to your maximum every week.
“You’d have to ask him, but I’d imagine it’s a different job coming from Celtic where you are expected to win every week to a team newly promoted from the Championship. We have done reasonably well but his expectations are so high he probably wants to see us finishing third or second.
“He was at Leicester, a team that did reasonably well, won cups there, went to Celtic and won everything in sight, played in big games in Europe. It’s just a mentality as a player he’s brought through as a manager.
“It’s different, but I think the mentality has to be the same. We go out and play Celtic or Rangers, and with the squad we have we feel we can beat anyone on our day.
“The standards are very high, we are sitting fourth in the league and could be a place or two up if we’d seen games out a bit better. There were games we let get away from us. There are plenty of examples, 2-0 up against Motherwell with 20, 25 minutes left and we end up drawing.
“Hopefully that’s something we can rectify in the second half of the season.”
Hibs, of course, will swing back into action with a visit to Tynecastle to face arch-rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup for the third season in succession, club captain David Gray having already gone on record to say he sees no reason why they can’t replicate that memorable May day of 2016 – one which, Stokes revealed, more than matched anything he had achieved at Celtic.
He said: “Celtic are going to win the title – they have the strongest squad and the best players in the league – so the cup has to be the target for the rest of us. In the past few years Hibs have had great runs in the cups and I think this year will be no different. We’ll be striving to win the Scottish Cup again.
“Winning the cup with Hibs probably surpassed everything I achieved with Celtic. The background to it all with the club having waited so long and the scenes afterwards when you saw what it meant to the fans.
“The open top bus parade was unbelievable, something I could never do in Glasgow and something I will never forget, and it was definitely the highlight of my career above all else.”