It lasted only 11 minutes and he got just one touch of the ball, but for Alex Harris, his cameo appearance against Aberdeen signalled the end of five months of torment.
Today the teenage winger admitted to having been taken by surprise when told by boss Terry Butcher he’d be taking over from Paul Cairney, despite not kicking a ball in anger since a lunge by Motherwell’s Shaun Hutchison on the opening day of the Scottish Premiership season left him nursing a broken bone in his right ankle.
Harris has been left with a permanent reminder of that moment, one of the three pins inserted to help the healing process remaining in place as he begins his bid to reclaim his place in the starting line-up at Easter Road.
Although keen to focus on making up for lost time in the next few months, he vividly remembers the challenge which left his early season hopes in tatters.
He recalled: “I’d actually started the Motherwell game quite poorly, but felt I was coming into it when he came across me halfway though the second half. It was quite a high challenge, but I felt fine until I tried to get to my feet to continue playing.
“I couldn’t feel my foot. I was in agony and had to sit back down again. I’d broken a bone on the outside of my ankle and although it wasn’t as bad as was first feared, it was still the first injury I’d had.
“I’d never experienced anything like it before. At first I was thinking it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t happening to me.”
Harris spent weeks with his foot in a protective boot. As the bone began to heal, the long and difficult road to full recovery began under the watchful eye of physio Dave Henderson and his assistant Kitty Mackinnon. The 19-year-old’s natural desire for a return to action as quickly as possible tempered by the need to ensure he didn’t put himself at risk of incurring further injury.
Given the impact he’d had on the second half of last season – sparked by that stunning goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk which saw Hibs, then under the charge of Pat Fenlon, fight back from three goals down at half-time to make the final for a second successive year – the impatience of Harris was understandable. His absence was allied to that of Paul Cairney, who had suffered ankle ligament damage only a week earlier, robbing the Capital side of any real width.
Now, though, Harris is determined to force his way into Butcher’s plans, heartened by the positive comments the new manager has made regarding his potential, but, again, he’s adamant that while he’s anxious to play his part as quickly as possible, there will be no ill-judged rush.
He said: “I’d had my first pre-season with the first team and I was raring to go, to kick on from what I’d achieved last season, so it was really annoying to pick up the injury at that particular point.
“It was my first serious injury. No-one knew how quick a healer I might be, so it was a case of being careful, not pushing things too quickly. It was stressed to me not to go picking a date to be back in that if I did so, but missed it, then it would be a disappointment. So I did everything Dave and Kitty told me. They were great for me.”
As Harris slowly recovered Fenlon was, of course, replaced by Butcher, the change of management bringing with it the inevitable period of uncertainty as players try to work out if they’ll be featuring in the new boss’ long-term thinking. As far as Harris was concerned, though, there was nothing he could do, although his frustration was eased somewhat by hearing what his new gaffer had to say about him.
He said: “When a new manager comes in, everyone has a point to prove, but I wasn’t even training at that point and in recent weeks the team has certainly been moving in the right direction.”
A winter shut-down for Hibs’ Under-20 side also deprived Harris of the chance of some much-needed game time. The club’s youngsters headed for ten days in Turkey under the European Union’s Leonardo da Vinci project but, to his surprise, he found himself boarding the team bus for Pittodrie.
He said: “It was something of a coincidence because my first involvement with the first team was at Aberdeen last season when I was taken along just for the experience, although I didn’t even make it onto the bench.
“I was surprised at the start of last week to find myself involved with the first team, even more so to discover I’d be on the bench and I was really excited when the manager called me over and told me I’d be going on because it had been such a long time.
“It was a great thrill, getting ready to play again. The manager said he was pitching me straight in, but he was confident and sure I would cope. As it turned out I only got one touch of the ball and, of course, it was disappointing to see Willo Flood score that late goal just when we thought we were getting away with a point.
“But, when you step back and take a look at it, we’ve only lost two games in ten, both of them by a single goal away from home to the two teams at the top of the table which, I think, shows we’re heading the right way.”
And although the January transfer window is open and Butcher is making no secret of his desire to strengthen his squad over the course of the next couple of weeks, Harris believes the fact he was prepared to pitch him and fellow teenagers Jason Cummings and Sam Stanton in against the Dons in a bid to wrest all three points from their grasp shows home-grown talent isn’t going to be overlooked.
He said: “Jordon Forster had started the match, so we ended it with four players aged 20 and under, while Danny Handling was also on the bench. It shows the manager wants to give young players an opportunity, which can only be good for the boys in the Under-20s, who’ll be thinking they can do likewise.”
Those up-and-coming hopefuls, however, will have to show the same patience as Harris knows he’ll have to continue to display. He said: “The manager has said he’s not going to rush me. We don’t want to rush any further injury, so I’ll keep listening to the physios and hopefully get the opportunities to build up my match fitness.”