Danny Handling believes he can finally perceive a ray of light at the end of a dark tunnel after suffering more than five months of injury torment.
The Scotland Under-21 midfielder has been forced to watch from the sidelines as his team-mates have gone toe-to-toe with Rangers in the race for the Championship title, his hopes of being part of it all wrecked by a serious knee injury in Hibs’ first pre-season match.
There were only 18 minutes on the clock as the Capital club faced Berwick Rangers at Shielfield Park on July 14 when Handling went down having suffered what proved to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), forcing him to be stretchered from the pitch and leaving him to undergo two operations and a gruelling rehabilitation programme.
But today Handling revealed he hopes to be back in action by the end of January, his eyes firmly fixed on joining Easter Road team-mates John McGinn, Jason Cummings and Liam Henderson for the remainder of the young Scots’ European Championship campaign which restarts with an away match against France in late March.
And, he insisted, he’ll return a stronger character having spent those long, lonely hours regaining his fitness and contemplating just what he was missing, admitting that up until that point he had probably taken playing football for granted.
There will also be the small issue of impressing Alan Stubbs all over again, Handling revealing he’d knuckled down to win a place in the head coach’s plans after hearing he was likely to be farmed out on loan before the season began.
The 21-year-old said: “That was tough to take but, as soon as I heard that, the first thing I wanted to do was get back into the gaffer’s plans. I didn’t take a holiday, I stayed at home, worked hard and came back in very good shape and was one of the fittest when we started pre-season training.
“I think the gaffer took a liking to that and the way it was going I thought it was looking good for me.”
Being part of the squad which spent a week in the Spanish resort of La Manga, a trip which ended with Handling playing a bounce game against Gary Caldwell’s Wigan Athletic and a start against Berwick – where he had spent an enjoyable loan spell as an 18-year-old scoring seven goals in as many matches – appeared to confirm his hopes.
He said: “I was looking forward to playing at Berwick because I’d enjoyed my time there a few years ago. It never crosses your mind that something so serious might happen. I’d put my foot out to block the ball and as I put it down I heard a pop. It was sore, but I got up and tried to play on but when I went to chase the ball a couple of minutes later I fell for a second time and I knew it was bad. My leg had given way.
“When we got back to the changing room the physio knew right away that it was definitely an ACL, I couldn’t get any movement in my knee.”
A scan two days later confirmed the devastating news. A week on and Handling underwent reconstructive surgery but, six weeks later, he woke with severe pain in his knee, a further scan disclosing a loose piece of bone which required further surgery.
Throughout his lengthy rehabilitation, Handling’s spirits have been kept up by Stubbs, assistant coach Andy Holden and first-team coach John Doolan as well as the medical staff and his team-mates.
But, he admitted, even with their support, as much as it was appreciated, having to cope mentally was perhaps even tougher than going through the pain barrier daily as he fought to regain fitness.
Hours were spent on a “Wattbike” which provided the club’s medical staff with precise data as to Handling’s progress, time which he spent reflecting on his career to date.
He said: “I don’t think you realise what football is about until you get a big injury such as mine. You know it’s going to be a long time but you don’t realise how long until you’re doing it.
“It’s the first serious injury I have had and it makes you realise how lucky you are. Football isn’t all sunshine but you enjoy training and playing, even in the rain and the cold. However, until all that’s taken away from you I think you take everything for granted.
“I had a few chats with people which helped me. Taff [Holden], for example, had a few bad injuries in his time as a player and, along with the gaffer and others, he kept me going.
Having people at your side definitely helps but it’s the daily grind that can get to you. There’s all the repetitive stuff you have to do and going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning knowing you’ve got another day of it ahead of you can be really tough – they are really long days.
“But I feel stronger, people are telling me I look stronger and my body fat percentage is down at five per cent. It’s been a long process but it’s starting to come together.
“I’m doing a bit of jogging, I’ve had a touch of the ball and I’m hoping to be back by the end of January.
“I’m a bit ahead of schedule and I want to get back for the Under-21s when they start again in March. This will be my last year at that level so hopefully I can get myself fit, do well at Hibs and hope to be selected.”
Throughout his recovery, Handling has been a familiar figure at home matches – although he’ll watch Monday’s showdown at Ibrox at home on television – and club events such as the recent Christmas football festival for young fans at East Mains.
Inevitably, he’s had to field countless questions as to his progress. He said: “I know not every fan likes you as a player and I have to admit there was a point where I couldn’t handle criticism, I took it too personally.
“But the best players in the world have their critics and the fans have been great to me. Sometimes it does get a bit wearing to be asked those questions every two minutes, how far away am I, when will I be back. However, it’s far better they are asking then not speaking to me at all. At least it shows they are taking an interest in me.
“Now my hope is that I can be back for that final push. It’s tough watching the boys doing so well, there is that tendency to think ‘that could have been me’, but they’ve been great to watch and quite rightly they’ve been getting plenty of plaudits.
“There’s a great atmosphere around the place, the fans are loving it and it would be great if I could play some part in it all.”