Paul Heffernan was handed the chance of a quick escape from Championship football but turned his back on the offer of a return to the top flight with St Johnstone, determined to play his part in helping Hibs win promotion to the Premiership.
Saints made their move after top scorer Stevie May’s switch to Sheffield Wednesday, tempting Heffernan with a two-year contract which, according to Easter Road boss Alan Stubbs, was more lucrative than his current deal.
But, while most would have expected Heffernan to add his name to summer exodus which saw an astonishing 17 of his former team-mates depart in the wake of the Capital club’s relegation, the Dublin-born striker said ‘no’, opting instead to throw in his lot with the new head coach.
Speaking for the first time today about the dilemma which confronted him, the 32-year-old said: “There was interest from St Johnstone and I did speak to them. But I spoke to the manager, we had a good chat and he told me he would like me to stay. I said I wanted to stay but, at the end of the day, it was left up to me.
“He [Stubbs] said he was not going to force me to do anything I did not want to do. He left it in my hands and I made the decision I wanted to stay. I was under contract here and I wanted to stay, fight for my place and hope to score enough goals to get the club back up.”
His decision made, Heffernan found himself in a dressing-room which barely resembled that of last season, a host of new faces replacing those familiar figures who’d left, the final twist in what he admits was an “interesting” first year at Easter Road following his arrival from Kilmarnock.
Signed by Pat Fenlon, Heffernan saw his fellow Irishman depart less than three months later to be replaced by former England captain Terry Butcher, the ex-Inverness Caley boss axed after overseeing a devastating downward spiral culminating in that penalty shoot-out defeat by Hamilton which provoked a summer of protest which continues to rumble on to this day.
Heffernan said: “When I came here last season on deadline day of the summer transfer window, I certainly did not expect to be in a relegation battle and to be going down. But that’s the way it is and there’s no point now in saying ‘this should have happened’ or ‘that should have happened’.
“We are where we are and we have to try to get ourselves back up and in to the top division. I’m playing under my third manager and I’ve only been here just over a year. It’s been hectic but hopefully everything is settled now and we can get the club going forward again.”
An indifferent start to the new campaign allied to the impressive beginning made by Capital rivals Hearts ensured the past few weeks remained as bumpy as the final months of last season for Stubbs and his players. However, after a run of five matches without defeat, Heffernan and his team-mates believe they are finally up and running.
He said: “It’s a whole new team practically, a new squad and a new manager. There’s been a massive turnover in players. A lot went out and plenty have come in as well so it was always going to take time. As I said in pre-season, it’s a work in progress. You just can’t click your fingers and expect everything is going to be great.
“You have to work hard. That’s what we are doing and hopefully we are now starting to get our rewards for that hard work. We are on a good run. Five games unbeaten means confidence is high but, to be fair, it never really dropped.
“We have had some bad results, but morale has always been good since the new manager came in. There’s a lot of positivity about the place. Results are starting to come and hopefully we can stay on this good run.
“Even within the bad results, performances have been all right. Alloa away is the one I can think of when we were really disappointed with the way we’d played. But it is about winning games and we believe if you put in a good performance you should end up winning more games than you lose and that’s what we are focusing on.”
Just as Hibs’ season begins to gather pace, so, too, does Heffernan hope his own fortunes have turned, the much-travelled striker scoring his first goal, the fourth in Hibs’ 4-0 demolition of Livingston.
From a purely selfish point of view, Heffernan naturally has his fingers crossed that it will prove to be the first of many. However, he’s just as happy to see his rivals for a place up front, Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings – not to forget Farid El Alagui when he returns from injury – getting on the scoresheet and has no problem in passing on the experience he has gained from playing for the likes of Notts County, Bristol City, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic, Bristol Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday.
As one of Stubbs’ senior players, he said: “We have a fairly young squad but there’s plenty of experience as well, players who have played a lot of games in their careers. So, any advice or help we can give the young lads we try to do that. We have a lot of good young players at Hibs but, with young players it is up and down, up and down so, if we can help, we certainly will.”
Laughing at the thought that he’s possibly “doing himself in” by passing on tips as he battles to pin down a starting place, Heffernan said: “Maybe that’s the case, but it’s not about me but the bigger picture, the football club.
“You want to see the strikers in your team banging in the goals just as you want to see guys in the other positions do well.
“When you get your own chance it’s up to you to take it and make it hard for the manager to leave you out and, from that stance, it was good for me to get off the mark against Livingston. But seeing Dominique and Jason getting among the goals isn’t a problem for me. I’m delighted every time they score for the team, that’s the main thing.
“When I was a young lad at Notts County there was a guy called Mark Stallard, who scored a lot of goals for the club and he certainly gave me a lot of help and advice. As a young striker you are going to be judged on how many goals you score so, if you aren’t doing so, then sometimes you need someone to give you that bit of encouragement, to be positive with you and that’s what I try to do with the young strikers I am working with now.”