HIBS kid Danny Handling admits he didn’t quite know what to expect from Terry Butcher, but the bear hug from the new boss after his performance against St Mirren on Saturday said it all, a seal of approval for his efforts in the big Englishman’s first game in charge of the Easter Road outfit.
Although Handling was more than a little taken aback by Butcher’s public show of appreciation, it was nothing compared to his surprise at being pitched into the match against the Buddies, having enjoyed only a single training session under the watchful eye of the new Hibs manager.
International duty with Scotland’s Under-21 side, a funeral and a cancelled match had all combined to prevent Handling meeting Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas for the first time until barely 48 hours before the trip to Paisley, the intervening period causing him a fair degree of apprehension.
Any misgivings the 19-year-old may have had disappeared, though, as that embrace in the away dug-out was quickly followed by equally warm words from Butcher, who revealed he’d been “excited” by what he’d seen in such a short space of time from the youngster from Haddington.
However, as much as he delighted in Butcher’s first appraisal of his talents, Handling today insisted he could take nothing for granted and must continue to earn his place in the manager’s thoughts.
“When a new manager comes in, players naturally wonder what the future might hold for them personally; will he fancy you as a player or not? I’d been through it before when Pat Fenlon replaced Colin Calderwood, but at that time I was pretty much on the periphery of the first team, more a member of the under-20 side and as such, you aren’t affected as much.
“This time, though, I was away with the Scotland Under-21 side to play Georgia when the appointment was made. I then had a funeral to attend to on the Monday and while I was down to play in the under-20 game against Kilmarnock on the Tuesday, it was called off because of a frozen pitch.
“Wednesday was a day off – although I went into East Mains – but it meant the first time I met the gaffer and Maurice was the Thursday. He must have liked what he saw from me because he put me straight into his starting line-up.
“Obviously I was delighted because I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d been away and other guys had the chance to catch his eye in that time with everyone in the same position of trying to make an immediate impression. The gaffer is obviously a legend, captain of his country and having played for Rangers, while Mo has also played at the highest level for Dundee United and Scotland.
“I think knowing what they’ve achieved in the game makes you, as a youngster, a bit apprehensive. The gaffer himself is quite an imposing figure, but I have to say I’ve found both of them terrific. They are funny guys, but very good coaches, having been there and done it.”
While a no-scoring draw was a reasonable start for Butcher – the manager was more than happy with the performance his players had produced – it was a fifth game in succession without a goal for Hibs, leaving the Capital club as the Scottish Premiership’s lowest scorers, a record which Handling described as “a joke.”
However, having partnered James Collins in Paisley up front for the first time after the ex-Swindon man came on to replace Paul Heffernan, who tore a thigh muscle after only five minutes, Handling insisted he was more than confident the goals will come, starting with Saturday’s trip to face Ross County as Hibs open their bid to make the final of the Scottish Cup for the third season in a row.
He said: “I don’t know what the team is going to be for the weekend, although I’ve obviously got my fingers crossed that I’ll be in it. I thought James and I did quite well against St Mirren. The boys were delighted with how it went and so was the gaffer. The only thing missing was a goal, but hopefully James and I can continue to develop a partnership which will get us goals.
“For a club like Hibs to be the lowest scorers in the league is a bit of a joke, so hopefully we can pick up a bit of form and get a couple of goals for ourselves.
“However, we know it’s going to be tough up in Dingwall. Hibs haven’t managed to beat Ross County at all in six meetings so far, but, again, that’s a record we want to break.”
Handling revealed he has an extra incentive on Saturday, having picked up a foot injury the last time the two sides met, a no-scoring draw at Easter Road at the end of August. It robbed him of his first Scotland Under-21 call-up as he was forced to pull out of Billy Stark’s squad only a few days before they were due to play the Netherlands.
He said: “It was quite upsetting at the time as I was really delighted to have got the call and I was out for a bit longer than expected.”
Handling’s return to fitness prompted a further call-up from Stark for the young Scots’ next European Championship match against Georgia, but, again, he found himself disappointed – thanks to Hearts’ star Callum Paterson’s spectacular overhead equaliser. He said: “We were a goal down, I was stripped and ready. I’d been given all the information and then Callum scored and they decided to leave things as they were.
“Callum did say ‘sorry’ to me, but that’s football and hopefully further opportunities will arise for me if I keep playing well for Hibs.”
Little did Handling know that night at St Mirren Park, which is home to the Scotland Under-21 side, that his next trip to Paisley would end on a more pleasing note.
He said: “It’s always good to walk off and see your manager clapping his hands and wanting to give you a hug for the efforts you have put in. It meant a lot to me as it shows he must have liked what I had done. There was a big ‘Awww’ from the Saints fans behind us, but the gaffer told them ‘He’s only 12’.
“I’ve had a bit of stick from the boys for it, but what also pleased me was getting a few calls and texts later to tell me the gaffer had been on the telly giving me a good appraisal. It was great for my confidence.”