Ross Caldwell found Pat Fenlon true to his word as the Hibs boss was confronted with the loss of top scorer Leigh Griffiths, having decided it was too risky to play the in-form striker in a match which could have taken the Easter Road club to the summit of the SPL.
Griffiths’ ankle knock, sustained in training but aggravated as he scored both goals in Hibs’ 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock seven days earlier, left Fenlon with a straightforward choice, 18-year-old Caldwell or Finnish veteran Shefki Kuqi to form the strikeforce alongside Eoin Doyle.
Although many may have opted for the experience of Kuqi, the 35-year-old able to boast an impressive CV listing previous clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United to go with his 62 international caps, Fenlon, instead plumped for a rookie with barely 60 minutes of first-team experience over a more senior player with less match fitness.
While revealing he wouldn’t have been surprised had Fenlon taken the “safer” option of Kuqi to face Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Caldwell admitted he was delighted to be handed his first competitive start, having been limited until now to six appearances as a substitute, the longest of which had lasted just 22 minutes.
Caldwell said: “I learned the day before the match when we did some team shaping I’d be starting. The gaffer named the team and told me I was coming in for Leigh. I was really excited as it was my first start in the SPL. The only other time I’d done that was in pre-season in Belgium but it was totally different to be doing so in the league in front of a home crowd at Easter Road.
“I was glad to be part of it but when you see someone like Shefki there, a really experienced player, you realise the manager could probably have made an easier choice and gone for him. But he put his faith in me, I was really appreciative of the fact he had picked me. It was more or less the first time Eoin and I had played together but I thought we complemented each other quite well.
“It was totally different being on from the start and finding the tempo of the game right away rather than coming off the bench for a few minutes at a time. I was absolutely shattered and went down with cramp towards the end but it was a great learning curve and to play 90 minutes at home in front of our own fans made it even better.
“Hopefully I did enough to repay the gaffer’s trust and there will be a few more opportunities to come my way.”
Until the weekend Caldwell had been sharing, along with others, a seat on the bench with fellow 18-year-olds Danny Handling and Sam Stanton, both of whom, like himself, had been forced to be content with cameo appearances here and there, although Fenlon had repeatedly insisted the arrival of nine new players over the course of the summer as he began rebuilding his squad wouldn’t block the youngsters’ progress.
His words hadn’t gone unnoticed, as Caldwell revealed. “The gaffer had been saying in the papers he hadn’t brought these players in to replace us, that we’d still be given our chance when the opportunity arose,” he said. “We saw in him putting me on from the start that he’s not scared to do so.
“Probably everyone was thinking Shefki would come in for Leigh, he’s done a lot in the game, he’s an experienced player and that might have been the easier choice for the gaffer to make. Danny and Sam were really happy for me when they heard I’d be playing. They might have been a bit jealous but they were supportive, telling me just to go out, do what I usually do and everything would be all right.
“Hopefully it won’t be too long before they get the same sort of chance themselves.”
Although Kuqi may be almost twice the age of Caldwell, fellow striker Handling and midfielder Stanton, the young striker revealed how the veteran, while finding regular first-team action hard to come by as he brings himself up to speed, is already playing a part in his development both on the training ground and in the Under-20 matches he’s played in as an over-age player.
Caldwell said: “Shefki has been great. He’s taken Danny and myself under his wing and spoken a lot to us. There’s little things he’s given us to add to our game, things that are going to improve us both.”
As memorable as Caldwell’s day turned out, he admitted it had been tarnished a little as Caley, having trailed to strikes from Doyle and David Wotherspoon as they were, as their boss Terry Butcher put it, “run ragged,” staged a comeback to snatch a point with skipper Richie Foran grabbing the equaliser just nine minutes from time.
The youngster said: “It did cross my mind when David scored that we were heading for a win but you never know in football. Their goal before half-time [a contentious effort from Conor Pepper] got them back into the game and to only draw after being two up made it feel more like a defeat.
“Before the match the boss and Liam O’Brien had been saying the fact we had the chance to go top was a really good incentive, something to spur us on, but unfortunately it was not to be. However, people shouldn’t forget that’s six games undefeated and it’s up to us to go to Aberdeen on Saturday and keep this run going.”
Having sat on the bench a number of times last season listening to the crowd’s reaction as Hibs struggled on a weekly basis, Caldwell admitted he was struck by the reception he and his team-mates had received, despite the fans’ sharing their disappointment at seeing two points dropped when Fenlon’s side could, quite easily, have been top of the pile today after SPL leaders Motherwell had to settle for a draw at Pittodrie.
He said: “The fans have been getting right behind us in the last few weeks, spurring us on. Last year when things weren’t going well they were within their rights to get on our backs but now they are totally behind us and that’s great.
“Last year we were nowhere near as good as we are now but it’s a case of keeping it going. We feel we are only going to get better. It’s a new team, we’ve a lot of new players in the squad and as we gel together hopefully we’ll keep it going and be at the right end of the table come the end of the season.”