Paul Cairney drew some pointed looks as he strolled through one of Celtic Park’s hospitality suites, resplendent in his Hibs tracksuit and having just stunned the home support with a late equaliser for the Easter Road club.
But he was, at least, sure of a warm welcome at one of the tables, where his father, also Paul, was playing host, delighted to have seen his son score his first goal for Hibs despite being a lifelong Hoops fan.
Today, Cairney admitted he is hoping for a similar reception as Terry Butcher’s side bid to withstand the expected backlash in the wake of Celtic’s Champions League hammering by Barcelona and emerge with a positive result to continue the new manager’s unbeaten record and maintain the resurgence Hibs have enjoyed since his arrival.
Agreeing that goal 15 months ago remains the highlight of his career at Easter Road – at least so far – Cairney said: “My dad had taken a table in one of the hospitality suites – he’ll probably have done the same again today – so I went to see him.
“The reception I got was quite mixed as I walked through the room, but all my family were there. My dad was delighted for me. Despite having been a Celtic fan all his days, he wants to see Hibs win when I’m playing.”
Cairney admitted that only a few weeks ago he couldn’t even have hoped to be facing Neil Lennon’s side today, having found himself frozen out by former manager Pat Fenlon and having not kicked a ball for seven months until Butcher replaced the Irishman and immediately recalled the former Queen’s Park and Partick Thistle star to first-team action.
While Cairney freely accepts his initial omission was down to an embarrassing performance in the semi-final of last season’s Scottish Cup when he was ‘hooked’ at half-time as First Division Falkirk raced into a three-goal lead, further time was spent on the sidelines as he suffered serious ankle ligament damage on the eve of the second leg of the ill-fated Europa League tie against Malmo.
A sense of frustration grew, however, as fully fit again, he was continually overlooked by Fenlon, the closest to a return being the odd seat on the bench.
The 26-year-old said: “It was really hard for me, coming in to train Monday to Friday, only to be left out of the squad completely on the Saturday. I never got an explanation.
“I knew I had hit a bad patch – the semi-final was unacceptable and I hadn’t played since until the new gaffer came in.
“He put me in the team straight away. I have to thank him for that and hopefully I can do well for him.”
Butcher stuck by Cairney even although he was controversially sent off as Hibs secured their first ever win over Ross County to ease their way into the fifth round of the Scottish Cup, referee Craig Thomson adjudging him to have “dived” as he was challenged by the Staggies goalkeeper Mark Brown, an action which earned him a second yellow card.
Cairney, naturally, hotly disputes Thomson’s decision but, he admitted, seeing his name on Butcher’s teamsheet for the following game against the Jags gave him another fillip. Noting the irony of a Rangers legend reinvigorating the career of the son of a Celtic-daft fan, he said: “He seems to have lifted the confidence of everyone. We hadn’t been playing well and confidence was low, but he’s come in and I think the fans can see there’s a bit of passion about the club again.
“I’m delighted I’ve played in his first three matches. I’m still finding my match sharpness, but hopefully with games I can get back to where I was last season.”
Like most of his team-mates, Cairney watched Celtic taken apart by Barcelona as they exited from the Champions League and European football altogether, the 6-1 humbling in the Nou Camp prompting fears of Hibs suffering a backlash from a side which has recently put 19 goals past Ross County, Aberdeen, Hearts and Motherwell.
Cairney, though, insists Butcher’s squad make the journey west confident of their own ability, while obviously aware of test which lies in wait. He said: “I’m sure Celtic will come out determined – they’ll want a victory and we have to be aware of that.
“Celtic Park is one of the great stadiums to play in, everyone looks forward to it.
“It was pretty special to score there, and hopefully I can do the same again and prove to everyone why the manager is picking me.”