Comeback kings are lifting Hibs

Sproule congratulates Garry O'Connor
Sproule congratulates Garry O'Connor
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They say never go back, though plenty footballers have felt compelled to do so.

And there can be few more striking examples of a successful homecoming than that of Garry O’Connor’s, the Hibs favourite who has struck ten goals in 12 games since returning to the club five years after leaving for Lokomotiv Moscow.

Ivan Sproule has been the architect of many of O’Connor’s goalscoring chances and, in common with Ian Murray, is a further example of a present-day player in their second spell at the club. O’Connor’s former strike partners Derek Riordan and Mixu Paatelainen are two more who have found the lure of an Easter Road comeback too strong to resist.

Michael Weir, a Hibs hero of the 1991 League Cup-winning team, knows from first-hand experience the difficulty in coming back to a former club, having made a break for Luton Town as a 21-year-old but returning, regretful of a hasty decision to leave Leith in the first place, just months later before ending his career at Motherwell.

“Any player going away and coming back, you feel a bit of pressure, but in Garry’s case the fans love him,” said Weir. “The most important thing with Garry is he’s matured. When you’re young, you make mistakes – I’ve done it myself – but you begin to see different aspects of your game get better.

Weir believes Hibs fans should enjoy their second helping of O’Connor while they can – because the club may well serve merely as a stepping stone for the player to step up a level once again when his contract runs out at the end of the season. “He’s only on a year-long contract and he can only move on to better things again if he wants,” said Weir. “I think he’s got his form back, and it’s good for Hibs and himself.”

While O’Connor was the headline signing of a busy summer for Hibs boss Colin Calderwood, there was a similar level of excitement among fans when it was announced Sproule was also on his way back, although the once-lightning-fast winger was expected to have slowed up a little since turning 30.

“I was in the same position when I went to Motherwell at a similar age – I realised that there were things in my game that I didn’t used to have,” said Weir. “You use your head to make less runs and save your legs. I don’t think it’s important he’s lost a bit of pace because he’s using his head a bit more. I think Hibs have inherited a different player because of his experience; he has played effectively in different ways.”

The attitude of fans can affect a player’s successful return to their club, with supporters sometimes bitter at a player’s initial exit. Not so in the case of Murray, says Weir, who has the utmost respect for the former Scotland international. “When you get older, the way you go about your business in training and on the park is important, and there’s no-one better at that than Ian Murray,” said Weir. “He was part of a fantastic side alongside Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy, but since coming back he’s walked into a younger team and his experience is invaluable. He’s the perfect professional – what you see is what you get. He won’t grab the headlines but you need his consistency in a team.”

Riordan, who left the club in the summer, had returned as a hero to the legions of fans who had been upset at his ill-starred move to Celtic, but Weir explains that his inability to return to former on-field glories was not down to the pressure of replicating the fine form he had displayed early in his career.

“I think he handled his second spell no bother.” said Weir.

“At times I thought he was playing in positions that weren’t right for him, he needs to be in positions where he can go and finish. He’s always been an out-and-out goalscorer and you have to let him go and affect the game in different areas rather than stick him out on the left and ask him to run 60 yards.”

Paatelainen set his career personal best during his initial three-year spell at Easter Road, a hat-trick in the 6-2 win over Hearts in 2000 ensuring he would always be welcome back at Hibs. He returned for a season-long cameo just a year after departing for Strasbourg, and although he wasn’t as prolific in front of goal, he offered added experience to a young team and his hero status among fans ensured a feelgood factor arrived with the signing.

“I think they were desperate to bring him (Paatelainen) back to the club and he taught the younger players good habits,” said Weir. “He was an honest player and loved playing for Hibs. In his two spells, he gave everything.”