“I’d play anywhere” is a well-worn cliché used by football stars to persuade manager and fans alike of their unfailing loyalty to their club, their willingness to do whatever it might take to pull on a jersey.
But for Hibs midfielder Tom Taiwo it’s more a case of “I’d go anywhere to play.” The 22-year-old finally got his first taste of SPL action as Pat Fenlon’s team swept aside basement outfit Dundee to climb briefly to the top of the SPL table, his only previous appearances in a green and white shirt being as an over-age player in the Under-20 side playing at East End Park and then Linlithgow Rose’s Prestonfield.
However, as delighted as he was to make his debut, replacing Gary Deegan for the final 16 minutes, Taiwo revealed he’ll happily step aboard the team bus as it departs for Aberdeen for the Under-20s’ latest game if called upon, the former Chelsea kid admitting that, having signed as a free agent after the transfer window closed, he’s still searching for full match fitness.
A measure of his desperation to attain the required level as quickly as possible was evident ten days ago when he made his first visit to Pittodrie, part of boss Pat Fenlon’s squad on the day but failing to make the 18 who stripped for action. But while those who would be involved prepared for the game, the ex-Carlisle United star was seen out on the pitch enjoying a solo training session.
He said: “I’ve obviously missed a bit of the season and having Sunday as a day off I felt it was important not to miss out, to get a bit of work in while the boys were playing 90 minutes.
“I’ve always been taught to take every game seriously and to give the best possible account of myself so hopefully my performances for the Under-20s have propelled me to be in and around the squad.
“Going to these games can be a potential banana skin. As a first-team player you are expected to do well and if you don’t then the manager will be asking questions so it is important you give of your best.”
Having had that brief taste of the action, Taiwo agreed the current international break couldn’t have come at a worse time for him although he appreciates most of his team-mates will welcome the prospect of a few days off before returning for Hibs’ next match, the long trip north to face Ross County in Dingwall.
Taiwo, however, insisted he’d have no complaint if asked to make the journey to Pittodrie. He said: “The break might have come at the right time for the team, giving the guys the chance of a breather and to regroup. It’s the wrong time for me but I’ll happily go to Aberdeen if told, it’s another chance for everyone who plays to show what they are about.”
There are some first-team players who wouldn’t hesitate to let their manager know that featuring in such a match wasn’t high on their list of priorities, but to Taiwo it’s a no-brainer.
He said: “Players who get upset about something like that are not doing themselves any favours. You play for a reason, my reason is I would like more games to be fit so that when I get 20 minutes or so on a Saturday I can give a good account of myself and give the manager something to think about, to show him what different abilities I can bring to the team and then, hopefully, that will be enough to persuade him to give me a chance from the start in the near future.”
Having said that, Taiwo acknowledged it will be difficult for anyone to force their way into Fenlon’s plans at the moment, the Hibs boss having made just two changes – and one of them enforced as top scorer Leigh Griffiths nursed an ankle injury – in the club’s last seven league matches while the likes of Ivan Sproule, Lewis Stevenson and Pa Kujabi ended up watching the weekend win from the stand.
Faced with such a struggle, he revealed how he took the opportunity to catch Fenlon’s eye as the manager contemplated making second-half changes. He said: “I was itching to go on. The gaffer told Shefki Kuqi to warm up so I thought I would try to twist his arm a bit by joining Shefki by warming up myself.
“I was delighted to get on, to get a touch of the ball in a competitive match, for us to get a good victory – quite a resounding one – to keep a clean sheet and to go top of the league, all in front of our own fans.”
Hibs, of course, occupied top spot for less than 24 hours, champions Celtic knocking them off their perch as they beat Capital rivals Hearts, but that doesn’t, according to Taiwo, diminish the feelgood factor which has been returning following the disappointments of the past two seasons and a less than promising start to the current campaign.
He said: “The manager doesn’t talk about the league really. All he talks about is the manner in which we perform. He was far from happy at Aberdeen, especially the second half so I think the way we played against Dundee rectified that a bit. The manager, though, is more interested in taking each game as it comes, in having a positive performance and from that hopefully the result comes.
“But you have to aim for the top, there’s no point aiming anywhere else. Everyone would love to win the title but as long as we are up and around that spot we can look to the European places.”
Fenlon has made much of his desire to “reconnect” with the Easter Road support, well aware that many Hibs fans have become disillusioned and will need persuading to return, the most obvious way in which to convince them being to prove the current good form can be sustained and isn’t yet another false dawn.
However, the manager and the few players who remain from last season have also commented in recent weeks as to the feeling that a growing number of supporters are buying into Fenlon’s revolution and recognise that although all the club’s ills won’t be cured overnight, Hibs are, at last, heading in the right direction.
And, even as a newcomer, Taiwo is conscious of the change of mood. He said: “Halfway through the second half against Dundee the fans really got going and afterwards I was out doing some running with Thommo [Scott Thomson, Hibs’ goalkeeping coach] and I said to him that Easter Road could really be a fortress.
“It comes from us. If we players can carry on performing and giving the fans something to cheer about then hopefully more and more of them will come and really turn this place into somewhere other teams dread.”