DANNY HANDLING admits tomorrow represents the start of the biggest season of his career as he bids to complete the transition from promising youngster to first-team regular.
The 19-year-old became one of the youngest-ever players to pull on a Hibs shirt when he made his debut, replacing Derek Riordan for the last few minutes of a home game against Aberdeen in May 2011.
Since then it’s been steady progress for the Haddington kid, the following season (2011-12) including a successful spell on loan at Berwick Rangers where he caught the eye with seven goals in as many matches. His return to Hibs saw him become a more familiar figure although he spent much of his time on the bench, with the majority of his 18 appearances coming as a substitute. Last season saw him net his first and only goal to date, a late fourth as Hibs enjoyed a 4-0 romp against tomorrow’s opponents Motherwell at Fir Park, and the young forward is keen to see that tally rise as quickly as possible.
He said: “It’s a massive season for me. I’ve played a lot recently with the pre-season friendlies and the Europa League matches and despite the scorelines and not scoring I have generally been quite happy with my form. I feel I’ve been consistent but I’d like to add goals to my game.
“This is the first season I’ve started as a first-team player and it is a huge step to make. The pressure, the intensity, the responsibility is far greater than you’d ever find in the Under-19s. It does take a bit of getting used to. Obviously the size of the crowd is one thing, the fans who come along to watch Under-19 football still want to see you win but at the same time they recognise you are still youth players. You get more time on the ball at that level.
“In the first team you don’t get that luxury and, naturally, the guys in the opposition teams aren’t going to give you any leeway just because you are that bit younger and inexperienced.”
It’s not only opponents, however, who tend to be less forgiving, with supporters, too, less inhibited when it comes to giving first-team players grief than they would be watching a youth game at East Mains, a fact which Handling admits was all too evident as Pat Fenlon’s side crashed to their humiliating 7-0 home defeat against Malmo last week.
Handling, though, insisted he has no quarrel with fans giving vent to their displeasure. He said: “It’s all about results and if you are not playing well the supporters have the right to voice their opinions. They have paid good money to see the team they have supported all their lives so it is understandable.
“Thursday night was a bad night for everyone at the club, the players, the staff, the fans. Of course everyone is still hurting, but the only thing we can do is put it behind us and we can hopefully start to do that tomorrow by getting our league season off to a good start.” Handling, of course, wasn’t the only Easter Road kid to have suffered that night, as fellow teenagers Alex Harris and Jordon Forster were also in the starting line-up, while they were joined within half-an-hour by 19-year-old Fraser Mullen, who made his Hibs debut as he replaced injured skipper James McPake.
And, he insisted, their tender years didn’t mean they didn’t feel the pain any less. He said: “It hasn’t been easy for anyone but the experienced players have been helping us get in the right mind. We can’t afford to dwell on what happened. Hopefully it’s an experience I’ll never have repeated throughout my career.”
While Hibs saw Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle depart at the end of last season, they have been replaced by Rowan Vine and James Collins, the former St Johnstone star and ex-Swindon Town forward likely to be Fenlon’s first-choice strike-force given the former’s experience and the fact the Capital club were reported to have forked out somewhere in the region of £200,000 for the latter. The fact Vine will serve a one-match ban when Motherwell are in town tomorrow does, however, offer Handling a window of opportunity to stake his claim, a chance he’s determined to seize.
He said: “I’m still trying to stay in the team and hopefully if I’m picked I’ll be able to catch the gaffer’s eye. Again, it’s another change from Under-19 football, although we are all team-mates it often comes down to whether it’s me or him in the side and obviously every player wants to be the one chosen.”
And to that end, Handling realises tomorrow is all about winning, a fact which over-rides any personal issues. He said: “Motherwell are a very good side, they’ve done consistently well over the past few seasons and have brought in some good players again this summer. It’s going to be a difficult game but it’s one we are all looking forward to.
“Of course, my goal at Fir Park remains a special moment for me and it would be great to get another one tomorrow. The priority, though, is to get the result.”