Armed with a new four-year deal, Danny Handling could easily have felt Alan Stubbs had pinpointed him as an integral figure in his immediate plans.
However, any notion the midfielder might have harboured of that being the case quickly evaporated when the new head coach at Easter Road showed his unforgiving side by dropping the 20-year-old from his starting line-up.
One sub-standard performance was all it took for Handling to find himself on the sidelines for more than six weeks, the seven matches played in that period granting him just two appearances – a month apart – as a substitute, which amounted to barely 45 minutes of first-team action.
Handling, though, went back to his roots, turning out for the club’s Under-20 side. He impressed Stubbs not only with his performances, but his attitude, with a stunning strike against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park that earned the Hibs youngsters a 2-1 win and seemingly clinching his recall for the weekend trip to West Lothian.
His patience having paid off, Handling went on to score his first league goal of the season – as did Dylan McGeouch and Paul Heffernan – as Stubbs’ side demolished Livingston to record their biggest win of the campaign so far, the trio cashing in after Dominique Malonga had given them a first-half lead.
Now the boy from Haddington has his fingers crossed he has done enough to convince Stubbs to give him the green light again on Sunday when Hibs seek to bring Capital rivals Hearts’ impressive unbeaten run at the start of this Championship campaign to a halt in the second Edinburgh derby of the season.
In an exclusive interview with the Evening News, Handling said: “I’ve had to be patient. I hadn’t started a game since the League Cup match against Dumbarton at the end of August. I was taken off when we were 2-0 down and we ended up winning 3-2, so I think that shows I wasn’t at my best that night.
“I was disappointed in myself, I knew I could have done a lot better, that’s why I was taken off, so there’s no complaints at all from me.”
Sam Stanton, Handling’s replacement against Dumbarton, claimed a stunning last-minute winner after a double by the now crocked Farid El Alagui had thrown Hibs a lifeline. But, along with Alex Harris, he too has found himself on the fringes of things, a fact which, Handling insisted, showed the strength of Stubbs’ squad with Malonga, McGeouch, Matty Kennedy and Jake Sinclair having all arrived since that time to add competition for places.
Handling said: “It’s fierce. We’ve got a strong squad now and I think the gaffer is happy everything is in place for us to get back up the table and to where we should belong.”
The victory over Livingston propelled Hibs into the play-off places and also made it five games without defeat for the Edinburgh side.
Handling admits the convincing nature of the win at the Energy Assets Arena couldn’t have left him and his team-mates in any better shape ahead of the derby.
He said: “I think we’ve felt for a while that such a result was coming, but, to be honest, finding the back of the net has really been our only problem as we’ve felt we’ve been playing well enough without getting our rewards. We believed a big result was due and I think the way we zipped the ball about showed we were hoping to get it.
“Scoring four was good, but we know we could have had a couple more. Dominique had a great chance in the first couple of minutes, Scott Allan hit the post and Jason Cummings had a good header well saved, so we did have a few more decent opportunities.”
Having said that, Handling was truthful enough to admit Livingston themselves had a great chance to equalise minutes into the second half, Kyle Jacobs sending in a powerful downward header to which Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley managed to get a strong hand before David Gray booted the ball to safety.
But, heeding that warning, Handling doubled Hibs’ lead minutes later before McGeouch, via the penalty spot, and Heffernan put what they believed was a fair reflection on the final scoreline.
Handling said: “There have been games when we’ve let a one-goal lead slip – the recent Raith Rovers match comes to mind immediately – but Mark has pulled off a great save and we’ve taken our chance to build on Dominique’s goal and to end the game in complete domination.
“Getting that second goal, though, was important. Jason set me up nicely and I managed to get the ball out of my feet and then, having seen the goalkeeper in the middle of his goal, I’ve managed to put it into the bottom corner.
“The gaffer had said at half-time we needed to start taking our chances to kill the game off and I think we managed to do that. We’ve moved in the right direction, up into fourth and now we’re obviously hoping to keep building on recent results.
“I think it was also good to see the goals being shared around. It shows we aren’t all about the strikers. Everyone wants to get involved rather than just rely on the front two. The gaffer has re-iterated it time and again, that everyone needs to chip in. So I’m sure having four different scorers will have been pleasing for him.
“For me it was a terrific game all round, back in the side, getting my first league goal of the season and, most importantly, a comprehensive win for the team. I was obviously disappointed not to have been on from the start, but I’ve been patient and waited my chance. I’d gone back into the Under-20s, as had Sam and Alex, to get my fitness and get up to speed and that’s helped. I enjoyed those games and scoring the winner down at Kilmarnock was a bit of a bonus.
“Now there’s a big one coming up. We are all looking forward to it and for us there’s no better way to be going into it than finishing a game as 4-0 winners.”