Paul Cairney admits he’s desperate to put his injury hell behind him by facing former club Partick Thistle tonight – but he’s equally adamant he’ll let his head rule his heart.
The midfielder has told boss Pat Fenlon he’s ready if needed for the clash at Firhill having recovered from ankle ligament damage to play twice in just four days for the club’s Under-20 side.
However, the 26-year-old realises he has to reconvince the Easter Road fans having seen his first season with the Capital outfit, which began so promisingly, end with him being plunged into the depths of despair.
An equaliser against Celtic in Glasgow and the only goal of the game against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park had made the former Queen’s Park player something of a cult hero among the Hibs support but Cairney disappeared seemingly without trace after what he admits was a horror show in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk, his performance so poor he was subbed at half-time with Fenlon’s side trailing the First Division club by three goals.
Cairney didn’t feature again for the remainder of the season but, stung by that humiliation, he worked hard over the summer to get himself back in shape only to see his hopes of re-establishing himself in Fenlon’s plans shattered as he landed awkwardly in the final few minutes of the last training session before the second leg of the ill-fated Europa League adventure against Malmo.
As a result, Cairney has yet to kick a ball in anger but insists he’ll have to temper his desire to get back into action with a determination that when he does so he’s able to do himself justice.
He said: “Showing the fans what I can do is important, they have given me a lot of support. The past few months have been frustrating for me as the last time I played competitively was against Falkirk and I hold my hand up and say I was terrible in the semi-final.
“Obviously, I have to prove to the gaffer that I am good enough and to prove to the fans again that I am good enough to play for the club. If the gaffer needs me tonight, I’ll be ready. I want to be back sooner rather than later and it would be nice to make my comeback at Firhill but, to be honest, I feel I need a bit more game time under my belt before I’m really ready.
“I have felt a big improvement having played the two games for the Under-20 side but the last thing I want to do is rush back too quickly, pick up another injury and find myself out for another two months so I’ll be guided by the physios as to what is best for me.
“When I come back I want to do myself justice because I know in my last few games I didn’t do myself any favours.”
With his last game having been at Hampden, Cairney found himself taking the first steps towards a first-team return in the rather less salubrious surroundings of Berwickshire High School as Hibs clocked up a sixth-successive win in the East of Scotland League with a 2-1 victory over Duns before scoring from the penalty spot as the Under-20s came back from two goals down to defeat Falkirk 4-2 to go joint top of their league a few nights later.
But, Cairney insisted, he had no problem at all in finding himself playing alongside the youngsters. He said: “It’s been great that I’ve been able to play in competitive matches rather than trying to gain fitness in bounce games. I felt a bit tired after the Duns match but I definitely felt my fitness coming back on Tuesday night.
“I’ve also enjoyed playing with some of the younger boys at the club, seeing what we have coming through and we definitely have some quality kids which, if they can push on, augurs well for the future.
“The gaffer has also kept me involved with the first team. The other week at St Johnstone he suggested that rather than sit at home that I travel with the squad and take part in the warm-up before the game. That’s been the frustrating bit, watching the boys go training while I’ve been in the treatment room and then being stuck in the stand to see them play.
“Just getting out there for those few minutes with the tracksuit and boots on helped make me feel part of it all again.”
Whether involved or not, Cairney will be at Firhill tonight having made no secret of the fact he’s been back to see his old team-mates play on a number of occasions since he made his move to Easter Road there will be no question of split loyalties.
He said: “Thistle have done really well. They could have faltered when Jackie McNamara left last season to become boss of Dundee United but Alan Archibald made what can be a difficult step from the dressing-room to the manager’s office and took them into the Premiership.
“I’m still friendly with Alan and I’ve been to see the boys play a few times. They’ve seem to have settled in quite nicely in the Premiership and have picked up a good few points already so we know it’s going to be a tough game. But as much as I enjoyed my time at Firhilll and like to see Partick doing well my only hope tonight is that we can give them a real doing.
“There’s a break of almost two weeks after tonight before we play Celtic at Easter Road because of the international break and, having lost against Inverness Caley, we want to be enjoying the time between games by having picked up the three points.
“Everybody was bitterly disappointed to see that unbeaten run we’d made ended by Caley but this league is so tight everyone knows putting together a few good results can have quite an impact on your position in the table. We’ve got ourselves into the top six and now it’s a case of making sure we stay there and looking to push on and try to catch the teams in front of us.
“On a personal level I want to help us do that but, in the time I have been out, the gaffer has strengthened the squad again and there’s going to be real stiff competition if I’m to win my place back. It will be a fight, but I’m up for it.”