IF only a certain Portuguese striker had, at the tail end of last season, found the form and fitness he is currently enjoying, Hibs may have found themselves far removed from the predicament in which they now find themselves at the foot of the SPL table.
With just one goal in 607 minutes of action, Ricardo Vaz Te’s statistics from his time at Easter Road illustrate a shadow of the player Hibs fans expected when their club announced the signing of the former Bolton Wanderers forward and ex-Portugal Under-21 international last February.
Still only 24 when Colin Calderwood recruited him on a short-term deal, Vaz Te played just two full games in the green of Hibs. Even in eight further appearances that saw him substituted or come off the bench in the second half of the 2010/11 SPL campaign, Vaz Te displayed little of the type of form that has seen him race to third in the list of top goalscorers in England’s Championship this season with ten goals for Barnsley.
Now fully fit and up to speed, Vaz Te is one of the most feared attackers in the second tier south of the border and he capped a prolific start to his life in Yorkshire with a hat-trick in last Saturday’s 4-1 derby win over Leeds United. His only goal for Hibs also came in a derby – a 2-2 draw at home to Hearts – but Vaz Te’s current output has left Hibs fans suitably bemused. His profile 12 months ago was of a player blighted by injury but sufficiently talented earlier in his career to have been earmarked as a promising young striker in the first team of a Premier League club. Hardly prolific in front of goal and the victim of a troublesome ligament injury, Vaz Te’s career stagnated between 2007 and 2010, a period during which he made just three senior appearances at the Reebok Stadium in as many campaigns.
An ill-starred spell at Greek club Panionios followed, and Vaz Te’s value had fallen dramatically by the time he was looking to return to Britain at this time last year. He failed to sufficiently impress Calderwood, then boss of a struggling Hibs side, and was denied an extension to his deal in Edinburgh, instead being offered a 12-month contract by Barnsley in summer. Vaz Te feels he owes a lot to Hibs for regaining his best form and ensuring that the days of settling for such short-term contracts could be behind him.
“I’m just happy I’m back playing regularly,” he admits. “When I came to Hibs it was a difficult time. There wasn’t much games to play, but I managed to play ten times, which was a big achievement because it was just about transition after being out injured for a long time. I had gone to Greece, got ten games there and obviously the standard there was not as hard, but that is what I needed in my career, to get the momentum going. I got my games there, wanted to step it up, wanted to come back to the UK, and managed to sign for Hibs. In the summer, I felt it was the moment to step it up, to look for extra, because I wanted to improve. Every player wants to be the best they can. If it’s Barnsley to work with, I’m grateful – I have a great opportunity at Barnsley. Other teams doubted me and didn’t want to take the type of risk that Hibs did. Now, I’m settled, happy, and doing my best – although sometimes that might not be enough.
“I felt the teams might have thought I was a risk, but being out injured [while at Bolton] you lose match fitness and sharpness. When I went to Hibs, they could see what I was missing was my fitness and they could see I could get back to normal. Everyone else had a head-start, and I had ten games to [get fully fit], which was never enough to do that. You could see I was improving, and I managed to score in the derby. The balance of my time at Hibs was positive – I learned from my time there.”
Vaz Te’s 80th-minute strike against Hearts at Easter Road in early-April to put Hibs 2-1 up – before Stephen Elliott levelled the game three minutes later – stands as a rare highlight of the Portuguese striker’s time at Easter Road. The player endured a barren run in the red of Barnsley during his first seven games, but, since then, the planets have aligned perfectly for him. In the last six weeks, he has struck eight goals in as many games. He has now scored more goals in three months than he managed, pre-Barnsley, during eight years in senior football.
“I wouldn’t say I’m better now,” says the 25-year-old. “At Hibs, I only had ten games, and had to get my fitness up. I was very pleased to get where I was at Hibs. When you lose three years, you don’t get it back in three months. I was happy with what I achieved at Hibs, but I wouldn’t compare it to what I’m doing now. I had a pre-season here [at Barnsley]; at Hibs, I didn’t. I don’t know if I’m a prolific striker, but sometimes you get a bit of luck. This season, [Hibs fans] would have seen a sharper and better Ricardo. I want to just keep improving. I think the Premiership would be the ultimate goal, but in my head is to keep my place in the side, that the manager sees me as positive for the team.”
Despite his lofty recent exploits, Vaz Te retains a great interest in the results of his old friends at Easter Road. Given the gulf in levels of success between the player and his former club, he has also assumed the unlikely role of agony aunt as Hibs endured a poor start to the current campaign.
“The team was great with me and treated me ever so well,” he says. “I have great friends there and Edinburgh is a great city. I have huge respect for the club, and I hope they do well in the future. I’ve got great mates there: [Akpo] Sodje, Victor [Palsson], and I speak to Graham Stack sometimes. We’re friends – and when you have real friends they’re happy for you. I’m sad for them, and I try to lift them up with my words – obviously it doesn’t quite work because you live in the moment. Myself, I just try to do my best. When things are going well, you have to keep it going.”