Danny Handling has promised to repay the faith shown in him by Alan Stubbs after the Hibs head coach handed him an immediate return to action following his red card against Rangers two weeks ago.
Handling’s dismissal in the Petrofac Training Cup clash at Ibrox resulted in the midfielder being sidelined for the opening day of the Championship and the youngster feared that 2-1 victory might cost him his place in the starting line-up for the first Edinburgh derby of the season.
His worries, however, were dispelled as Stubbs handed him a quick-fire return to the team on Sunday, only for his joy to be tempered by yet another derby day disappointment as Hibs lost yet again, going down 2-1 to their arch rivals.
“I was obviously really disappointed with what happened at Ibrox, particularly as I’d just equalised, felt I was playing well and we were looking as if we could well go on to win the cup tie at that stage,” recalled Handling on that ordering off, which was deemed contentious by many, with Hibs in the ascendency at that point.
“I felt I’d been harshly dealt with, but the referee was close by and it’s his decision.
“I did wonder if I’d be involved from the start on Sunday after the boys had beaten Livingston while I was suspended – but the gaffer showed great faith in me by putting me straight back in.
“I appreciated that – it gives you a lot of confidence and it’s up to me to justify his faith by continuing to put in the performances to persuade him to keep picking me.”
Handling and his fellow Hibs players did have their chances at Tynecastle, the 20-year-old himself involved in what proved to be a pivotal point in the match as, with the game still goalless, referee Willie Collum pointed to the spot as he tangled with Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton.
Hibs skipper Liam Craig dragged his penalty wide, allowing Hearts to capitalise with a stunning strike from Sam Nicholson before Prince Buaben showed the Hibs midfielder how it’s done from 12 yards.
Handling admitted he and his team-mates had been left stunned at seeing Craig, usually so reliable from the spot, fail to score, but he insisted his captain shouldn’t be left to shoulder the blame.
“I don’t know what happened at the penalty. Farid [El Alagui] had flicked the ball on, I went for it but ended up on the ground,” he said. “As I got up I could see my team-mates were confidently pointing to the spot. We felt we were probably the better team at that stage and it was a great opportunity for us to take the lead.
“You’d put your mortgage on Liam, that’s how much confidence we have in him putting penalties away. It takes a brave man in such circumstances, but Liam took responsibility, as he always does. Unfortunately, as we saw the day before when Mark Noble put one just wide for West Ham against Spurs, these things happen in football.
“It didn’t change the game as such because it remained 0-0, but it could have been a big, big moment for us as Liam knew.”
Just how the game might have turned out had Craig tucked his shot away can only be guessed at now, but, Handling insisted, it was another example of derby day breaks going against Hibs – citing last season’s League Cup defeat when goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald had single-handedly defied the Easter Road side and the Jordon Forster “goal” which had been disallowed on their previous visit to Gorgie.
“We’d gone there looking to win, to go all out for the result and you could see the players were trying to implement the style of play the gaffer wants to see,” continued the Scotland Under-21 cap. “To be honest, it looked as if it had 0-0 written all over it, which wouldn’t have been the worst result in the world. Then Sam hits that wonder strike.”
Buaben’s penalty coming three minutes later killed off any hopes Hibs might have had in salvaging something from the wreckage, El Alagui sending a point-blank header straight at Hamilton before the French-Moroccan claimed a consolation goal.
It was no more than, as Stubbs said, “a crumb of comfort” for Hibs, but it was El Alagui’s second goal in as many games and, according to Handling, the new striker, who scored 27 times in a season with Falkirk, is likely to prove just as prolific in a green shirt.
He said: “It was a terrific finish from Farid. He’d have been a bit disappointed not to have scored with that header a few minutes earlier, which might have changed things a bit, but he proved a handful for their defence throughout the game.
“He’s strong, really good in the air and I enjoy playing with him. I think we are building a good understanding.
“But everyone was a bit distraught at the end. We felt we deserved more from the game, but we did shoot ourselves in the foot. We created a few chances, but didn’t take them, and that’s what cost us.”