Edinburgh is proving a happy hunting ground for two Irish internationals, as I reported in The Sunday Independent a few couple of Sundays ago:
“I doubt I’ll ever tire of Edinburgh,” bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin once said of his hometown. With its spectacular views, historic old town and lively nightlife, the Scottish capital certainly has plenty of attractions — but it doesn’t take the forensic mind of Inspector Rebus to figure out what drew Liam Miller and Anthony Stokes to the city.
After a couple of years spent more on the bench than on the pitch, the two Irish internationals were just happy to be wanted at Hibernian. “It’s been great from day one, to be honest,” remarks Miller, who joined Edinburgh’s green half in September after a few anxious months without a club following his departure from Queens Park Rangers. Team-mate Stokes concurs: “It’s great to be back playing regularly. I’m really enjoying it here.”
As for Hibs, well the feeling is mutual. The Irish pair have been two of the main reasons the Easter Road outfit are currently running Celtic close for second spot in the Scottish Premier League and have a great chance to finally end their 108-year hoodoo in the Scottish Cup. Miller’s dynamic performances in the heart of midfield have won several man-of-the-match awards, while Stokes, with 14 goals already this season, including the first as Hibs came from two goals down to draw with Aberdeen on Wednesday, is showing the kind of form that brought him a £2m move from Arsenal to Sunderland while still a teenager.
Both players have settled in well off the pitch, too. Miller lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and young family; Stokes has an apartment close to the centre of town. “Next to Dublin this is probably my favourite city in the world,” the striker, who turns 22 in the summer, says. “I love where I live. Plus I’m just five minutes away from the ground. When I was at Sunderland, it was a 45-minute drive in the morning just to get to training.”
Miller and Stokes know each other from their Sunderland days. Originally signed by Roy Keane, the pair later found themselves surplus to requirements at the Stadium of Light.
“It was really frustrating at Sunderland towards the end,” says Stokes, stretching his legs across two chairs as we talk in an anteroom at Hibernian’s training ground about 15 miles east of Edinburgh. “I remember coming on in a cup game (against Northampton Town). We were two down at half-time, and I scored two in the second half. Next day I was asked to go on loan. It didn’t really matter what I had done on the pitch, I wasn’t going to get my chance there.”
The rangy, Dublin-born Stokes exudes a youthful insouciance, speaking openly and at length about most subjects. His compatriot Miller, who turned 29 last week, is more circumspect, sitting bolt upright with his arms folded across his chest. Unlike his Ireland and Hibernian team-mate, the Corkman is less willing to discuss his time at Sunderland, saying only that “it had its ups and downs”.
Miller, who began his career at Celtic, dismisses the suggestion that the SPL lacks quality: “The Premier League is probably the best league in the world but football in Scotland is at a very decent level.” The diminutive midfielder could easily have spent his career in Scotland — then Parkhead supremo Martin O’Neill wanted to build a team around him but Miller elected to sign a pre-contract with Manchester United instead. Does he have any regrets about leaving Celtic? “None,” he says without blinking.
Stokes has previous SPL experience, too — he first came to prominence after scoring 14 goals in 16 games while on loan at Falkirk, a spree that persuaded Keane to take him to Sunderland. John ‘Yogi’ Hughes was manager at Falkirk Stadium then, and Stokes had no compunctions about renewing past acquaintances when the tough-talking Scot took over at Easter Road during the summer.
“I thought there was no point staying at Sunderland rotting away, not playing football,” Stokes remarks of the decision to come to Hibs. “I knew I needed to be somewhere that I had a good chance of playing every week. As soon as the gaffer asked me up here I knew it was a good move. I’m just glad to get back up here and settle myself down and start enjoying my life and my football again.”
Stokes has never lacked self-belief but his Hibs career was almost over before it began when Hughes publicly reprimanded his new striker following an alleged brawl in an Edinburgh nightclub in September. The Dubliner admits he returned to Scotland with a “reputation” earned during his time at Sunderland but denies any wrongdoing. “I was in the club about five minutes. They said in the paper we were there for two hours drinking champagne. It’s nonsense. It was half past eleven and I’d just arrived and I hadn’t even had a drink. The tabloids just dig for stories. If they can’t find something they make it up.”
Currently second behind Rangers’ Kris Boyd at the top of the SPL scoring charts, Stokes says he has cut down his drinking, although he still goes out “every two or three weeks”.
“If I score two or three goals, I think I am entitled to go out and have a few beers. I don’t see why footballers should be singled out and told, ‘No, no you shouldn’t be doing that.’ We earn good money but you have to have some normal lifestyle especially when you’re 19, 20.”
Miller, too, has had past brushes with authority — most notably in 2008, when Roy Keane transfer-listed his fellow Corkman, citing a “lack of discipline” and “poor time-keeping”. But under Hughes’ tutelage the midfielder is fast maturing into a vocal on-field leader. “I’ve been used to having older people around me in the team. But it’s a young side here and now I’m one of the older heads,” Miller says of his newfound responsibilities.
While Stokes and Miller have been busy stamping their own authority on the SPL this season, it is the recent surprise arrival of another Irish international that has everybody in Scotland talking. “To have a player of Robbie Keane’s calibre up here is special. He is a quality player and I’m sure he will bang in the goals,” says Miller.
Keane’s presence should ensure that the SPL does not fall off Giovanni Trapattoni’s radar and both Miller and Stokes are hopeful of staking a claim for a regular berth in the Ireland squad as we head towards the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships. “I’d like to think that if I keep playing as well as I’ve been playing and keep scoring goals then I’ve a chance of being in the squad,” Stokes remarks.
Ireland’s senior striker has made no secret of his intention to return south when his loan arrangement with Celtic runs out in the summer. Do Keane’s international team-mates on the other side of the Central Belt hope to return to top-flight English football someday? Miller refuses to be drawn on the question, but Stokes admits that, while he may never tire of Edinburgh living, the lure of the Premier League may prove irresistible in the long-run.
“Of course, I’d love to play in the Premiership again. I’ve learnt from my mistakes. But first I have to settle down and show people that I can do it consistently. Before I came to Hibs people were saying that if I don’t score goals here it will be the end of me. But I always knew that if I played regularly I would score goals. Now I’ve got my confidence back, got the half a yard of sharpness back and I’m flying.”