Danny HANDLING will today hope to get on the same pitch as the man he views as the ultimate role model for any Hibs youngster.
The teenage forward is fit again after an ankle injury and is in contention for a place on the bench when Hibs welcome a table-topping Celtic side driven by former Easter Road favourite Scott Brown.
Despite this week picking up a three-game Champions League ban for petulantly kicking out at Barcelona forward Neymar last month, the Celtic and Scotland captain arrives at his old stomping ground in the form of his life.
Brown had left for Glasgow by the time a 15-year-old Handling became a full-time footballer at Easter Road, but with pictures of the Parkhead enforcer celebrating Hibs’ League Cup success in 2007 still adorning the walls of East Mains, the youngster is all too aware of how highly regarded the 28-year-old was in his time at the club.
As one of a crop of highly-rated young players trying to make a name for themselves at Easter Road this season, Handling, 19, knows he and the likes of Jordon Forster, Alex Harris, Sammy Stanton and Ross Caldwell need look no further than Brown for inspiration as they bid to make hay in the game. “If you do half of what he’s done you’re doing okay,” said Handling. “He’s a leader – he’s a very good player. He’s captain of that team for a reason; he’s captain of the country for a reason. He’s very good at what he does, so he’ll be one of the key players against us.
“I went full-time when I was 15, so I think he was away by then. I just missed him. I’ve seen him down in the kit room before. He comes before games to see Tam and Joyce [McCourt], the kit people.
“I don’t really know him. I kind of know things about Scott, how he plays and that, through Kevin Thomson, who’s very good pals with him.” Handling is champing at the bit to get back out on the pitch after an injury sustained in the draw with Ross County sidelined him for the last five games.
Having started three games in a row up to that point, the setback couldn’t have come at a worse time, with competition for places increasing all over the pitch as Hibs maintained an impressive run of form in his absence. Handling, who had to move from his favoured position of striker to right midfield in order to get regular action, is braced for another tough fight to force his way back into the side. “I’ve played two games for the under-20s, so I feel I’m fit enough,” he declared. “I’ve been doing runs, I’ve been doing a bit extra. I’d say I’m back to where I was before, so it’s all come together again.
“I had only missed two games throughout pre-season and the league, so I was enjoying my football and I felt I was starting to come on to a game. I was getting used to the position out wide and getting back to the way I used to be, then I got the injury. We’ve got a massive squad and everyone’s got massive ability, so to get back in the team is going to be hard for anyone. We’ve won five in the last seven games, so that says how much the team are improving. Wide right is not my strongest position, but I’ll play anywhere to get in the team. If the gaffer sees me in right mid I’ll play there.”
If he gets off the bench today, Handling will have no fears about facing the champions. He came on last December to help Hibs see out a 1-0 victory over Neil Lennon’s men at Easter Road and then came on for the last 20 minutes or so of the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Celtic in the Scottish Cup final. Such experiences ensure he won’t be gripped by nerves today. “To come on in a Scottish Cup final against anybody is a great achievement in itself. The adrenalin was unbelievable, despite getting beat,” he recalls. “I was up against Emilio Izaguirre. At first I didn’t know what to think: I was quite cautious. But once I got on I wasn’t too bad – I was just focused on my own game.
“In the league game I was only 18, so to get on in a game like that was massive. I would say there’s not a lot of nerves now. Because I’ve played quite a few games now, I know what it’s like at first-team level. I know what the fans expect and what the tempo’s like. Games like this can bring out nerves in the best of players, so there are still be a few nerves before.”