Ten years ago, Craig Sives was a starry-eyed 17-year-old Hearts fan with high hopes of making the breakthrough with the Tynecastle club.
At that point, he’d have given anything to enjoy the level of exposure the current crop of young players at Hearts have been afforded.
Unfortunately for the Colinton boy, a spate of serious and untimely injuries, allied to the presence of international centre-backs like Steven Pressley, Christophe Berra, Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas, prevented him making any real impact on the Hearts first team before he was released in 2009.
Having had countless early setbacks in his career, Sives has spent the past five years trying to make the best of himself. After a fruitful three years with Shamrock Rovers in Ireland which was followed by a shorter, less-rewarding stint with Hume City, a Turkish-backed club in Melbourne, he now has his sights set on helping Livingston reach the play-offs and possibly even the Scottish Premiership at some point in the next year or two.
After waiting patiently for his opportunity since being reunited with Lions manager John McGlynn, his former Hearts youth coach, in January, Sives has gradually forced his way into the side over the past month or so and has started five of the last six matches. Contracted at Almondvale until summer 2015, the centre-back is hopeful that this is the start of a belated bid to establish himself on the Scottish football landscape.
“I came back to Scotland to get regular games so it’s been good to be involved in the last few games,” said the 27-year-old, who scored his first Lions goal in Saturday’s 4-2 win at Raith Rovers. “I knew when I came in I wasn’t going to be a first-choice. John McGlynn brought myself and Nejc Mevlja in to be used as a back-up for the rest of the season.
“John was very open with me from the start – it was all based on whether or not Coll Donaldson was going to leave but I was more than happy to come in and train and try and win myself a deal. Nothing’s changed with John – he’s the same old John that I knew at Hearts. I enjoy the training under him. Knowing John helped me come to Livingston.”
Livingston sit three points outside the top four after last night’s 2-0 win at home to Alloa. “We’ve still got our eyes on the play-offs,” said Sives. “If we can get a positive result on Saturday that will go a long way towards pushing for fourth spot. Everybody at this level wants to play in the Scottish Premiership, but it’ll be tough for any team from the Championship to go up through the play-offs because it’s heavily stacked in favour of the Premiership team.”
As an Edinburgh boy, joining Livingston was ideal for Sives, who has enjoyed broadening his horizons further afield since leaving Hearts. “I’m glad to be back in Scotland, but I really enjoyed my time in Ireland,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t really have any choice but to leave Scotland at the time. But I played against some top teams in European competition and won a couple of league titles so it was a great time for me.
“If I had stayed in Scotland, playing in the Championship or League 1 or whatever, I wouldn’t have got those opportunities to play against big clubs in Europe. Going to Australia was something different. It was just unfortunate that there were a few issues at the club I was at with wages and stuff like that. I never got paid in the season I was there so I had to come back because I couldn’t afford to stay. It’s good to be back staying in Edinburgh and nice to have got an 18-month contract. It’s pleasing to get a wee bit of security so that I know what’s happening for the foreseeable future. I just want to play as many games as possible between now and the end of the season and then get a good pre-season under my belt and kick on from there.”
When he first left Hearts in 2009, Sives hit out at the “shambolic” way his boyhood club was being run by Vladimir Romanov and his cohorts. However, for all that he wishes he had managed to make the breakthrough at Tynecastle, he is philosophical about how things panned out for him.
“I’ve got no regrets about what happened at Hearts,” he says. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. When I was eventually released, it didn’t come as a surprise at all. It was disappointing, but I had been injured for pretty much the whole three years prior to getting released so I’ve got no problems with it at all.
“From 19 to 22 I was pretty much injured right through. They’re crucial years in your development. For any player who is injured for the length of time I was, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to get kept on. Injuries were the main problem for me. It wasn’t just little niggles that kept me out for a few months here and there – it was serious injuries that were keeping me out for six and seven months at a time. It seemed like a never-ending cycle.”
Sives, whose main first-team involvement at Hearts came in the 2004/05 season, still goes to watch the Jambos whenever he can and after turning out for Livingston at home to play-off rivals Dumbarton on Saturday, he will be at Tynecastle on Sunday to cheer on his old side as they bid to avoid having their relegation to the Championship confirmed by Hibs.
As a Hearts youngster who went on to make a living from the game despite barely playing a first-team game until he was into his 20s, Sives is confident that those who have been thrust in at the deep end this season will emerge all the better for the experience. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for these young players to get all the experience that comes from playing regular top-level football in Scotland,” he said. “They can only improve with all that game time and I’ve got no doubt that they’ll all go on and have good careers in the game as a result. It would have been great to get a run like that myself but it was completely different when I was there.
“I played and scored in the Festival Cup game in 2004 and I was in the squad for just about every game that season. I was on the bench a lot under Craig Levein and then John Robertson, but I only played twice – away to Dunfermline and away to Aberdeen on the last day of the season. And then the injury problems started.”