Born and bred in Leith and steeped in Hibs from an early age, convincing Danny Swanson to sign for his boyhood club won’t have been the most trying of tasks for manager Neil Lennon.
However, aside from now both being employees of the Easter Road club, Swanson and his new boss also have a shared history of dealing with depression. So when Lennon made a point of privately discussing his own experiences and assuring his new addition that he shouldn’t hesitate to knock on Lennon’s door should he feel the need to talk, it made a strong impression on the 30-year-old.
Whilst a Dundee United player in 2011, Swanson battled with the mental illness himself after struggling to overcome a series of injuries. Just weeks after being included in the Scotland squad for a Euro 2012 qualifier against Liechtenstein at Hampden, United checked Swanson into The Priory clinic in London for treatment.
Six years later and fulfilling a lifelong dream, Swanson is about as happy as he’s ever been in his career. Knowing that his manager has his back should things ever get too much again is a comfort as he embarks on his Hibs career.
“Neil was very good when I was speaking to the club,” said Swanson, speaking for the first time as a Hibs player. “The thing that really struck me came after the meeting. I just told my agent ‘get it done’.
“He took me away from my agent and spoke about mental health, which is a massive thing for me.
“I’ve had a manager say to me before that he wouldn’t come near me because I’ve had depression.
“For Neil to say ‘my door is always open’ and tell me about his problems was massive. It takes a lot to do that and I really respect him for that.
“You never know if us having things in common like that will be a good thing or a bad thing, because I’ve still got to produce the goods on the pitch. That’s what it comes down to. But to have it in the back of my head that if I’m having a bad time I can go and speak to him is a really big thing. I was surprised he brought it up, even though he’s been quite open about that publicly. I think that’s also a good thing. He’s not embarrassed and he shouldn’t be, but I still didn’t expect it. I came away thinking ‘I’d like to play for him’.”
Understandable, given one manager’s differing attitude towards Swanson’s past.
“It wasn’t to my face,” he recalled. “I was going down south to speak to Coventry and one other team. I was really excited about the other club because they’re a big club. We were in the meeting with [then Coventry manager] Steven Pressley when my agent took a call and he left the room. He came back in and when Steven left he said ‘the other deal’s off’ but wouldn’t tell me why until we got back up the road.
“He said ‘it’s because you were in the Priory for mental health reasons’. I was upset at the time. It’s a worry if there are people like that in the game but I wouldn’t want to play for someone like that anyway. It was a blessing in disguise.”
While the conversation with Lennon may have been unexpected, Swanson had already been well briefed on his new boss by team-mate and fellow Leither Darren McGregor, so he knows what to expect, and what will be expected of him, as a Hibs player.
“It didn’t change my perception of Neil because Darren McGregor’s spoken a lot about him,” Swanson explained. “Darren’s never had a bad word to say about him. He wasn’t exactly going to slaughter his own manager but Darren’s a very honest guy.
“It wouldn’t have mattered who was in charge. I always wanted to play here. I had the chance when I was younger, but I wanted to try England. I’m glad it’s come round again.
“Tommy [Wright, Swanson’s previous manager at St Johnstone] can be demanding but he was very, very good with me. He treated me a bit differently. Not as an example of favouritism, but he just knew how to treat me to get the best out of me. Hopefully, Neil can be the same. If not, I’m in trouble!”
Now officially a Hibs player, you can sense the excitement from Swanson. He may have gone via Berwick, Dundee United, Peterborough, Coventry, and Perth (not to mention a brief stint across town with arch-rivals Hearts), but there’s a feeling that he has finally ‘come home’, both in a literal and footballing sense.
“You still have to do your bit for St Johnstone and I feel I did that,” he said of his last few weeks at McDairmid Park. “I’m not going to lie. The day I signed I for Hibs it was all I was looking forward to.
“I came to every game, every home game. I used to go on my dad’s bus to away games but I didn’t make every one. Me and Darren actually used to sneak in together at times to the East Stand. I used to get tickets from my dad and I had a season ticket at one point. I’ve had a lot of phone calls from people I’ve not heard from for a long time just congratulating me really. I think they know what it means to me. It’s made me a very happy man.”
His obvious delight at the move may be more intense given the suspicion Swanson held himself that he had possibly missed his chance, especially after that somewhat indifferent six months in Gorgie. “I did wonder if the chance had passed,” he admitted. “It’s always been something that I wanted to do. As the years went by, I did start to think it might not happen. I was having a good season and I always thought it was something I wanted to do. I thought I’d done well enough to get a chance.
“Luckily enough, the manager’s signed me and it’s something I appreciate so much. I’m going to get to live my dream.”
Swanson will be expected to create and make things happen in green and white, and if he does it even half as well as the man he used to idolise, Hibs will have won a watch.
“It was Latapy,” Swanson confirmed. “He was my favourite player and I’ve still to see a better player at Easter Road than him – maybe Gascoigne.
“I like him because he plays football the way I like to play it although he’s a little bit better than me! He was one of the best. He was two-footed and I like to play with both feet, create things and score goals and hopefully I can do that as much as he did.”
His experiences of the mercurial Trinidadian weren’t just limited to watching from the East Terrace however. As a youngster, Swanson had to overcome a life-threatening heart defect, which required surgery and stays in Edinburgh’s Sick Kids hospital. A visit from his hero naturally sticks in his mind.
“Latapy and Dirk Lehman came in when I was getting my operation,” Swanson recalled “They came in and I didn’t think they were coming in for me. I stuck the strip on and they were brilliant. They stayed for a long time. I can’t really remember much of Dirk playing, Latapy was always the one that stood out to me and he was my idol, a player I always loved watching and he was exciting to watch.
“I think my dad sorted it out. He didn’t tell me and they just kind of walked in. As a young boy you get excited, they came and sat for a long time and they didn’t just turn up for the sake of it. They actually sat and spoke for a while and it was a good time for me after such a horrific point in my life.”
Was Swanson allowed to get in to such an excitable state given why he was there? “I was!”, he laughed. “I wonder what my heart rate was at that time. I do remember it very clearly. It was good.”
Latapy and Lehman were also part of a Hibs side that was seeking to re-establish itself in the top flight after an admittedly shorter period away. There are similarities though, in the way relegation and subsequent winning trophies as galvanised the fans and club.
It may have taken longer this time around and, of course, an unforgettable first Scottish Cup win in 114 years probably made the wait worth it for the vast majority of Hibees. Swanson believes, as was the case in 1998, that relegation may ultimately prove to be a catalyst for better times at his club.
“That kind of brought the fans out as well,” he said of the 1998/99 First Division campaign under Alex McLeish. “It maybe needs something like that and it happened again when we went down and it’s maybe needed that again. If we’d stayed up we’d maybe have just been hanging about the top six. I feel now there’s something happening here.”
If there is, Swanson has timed his homecoming perfectly.