Paul Cairney’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Determined to shake off his tag of having become the forgotten man of Easter Road, the midfield star had spent the summer getting himself into the shape of his life, determined to relaunch his Hibs career and silence those who had written him off following the bleakest day of his career.
How the former Partick Thistle player must have wished the ground at Hampden could simply have opened up and swallowed him as he trudged off, Pat Fenlon’s side 3-0 down against First Division Falkirk in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup and with Cairney culpable for all three of the Bairns’ goals.
Little wonder Cairney did not reappear for the second half and that stunning fightback, the depths to which he had plunged becoming more apparent by the day as he missed Hibs’ final five SPL matches and the cup final itself as 18-year-old Alex Harris became the name on everyone’s lips.
Cairney, though, steeled himself, refused to throw in the towel and spent the summer weeks working hard to return slimmer and fitter than ever, only to see his drive to push himself back into boss Fenlon’s plans shattered by a freak training ground accident.
The 25-year-old said: “It was the day before the second leg of the Europa League tie against Malmo and we were training on the pitch. I’d been on the bench in Sweden and was looking forward to at least being involved the next day. We’d had some wee games, done some crossing and finishing and only five minutes before the session was due to end I landed awkwardly and right away felt a lot of pain in my right ankle.
“It was the first injury I’d ever had in my career and I knew straight away it was a bad one. I was stretchered off the pitch, straight into the ambulance which, because of UEFA rules, was on stand-by and taken to hospital. The fear was that I’d broken the ankle although they couldn’t tell immediately because of the swelling.”
A later scan revealed ligament damage with the prognosis of Cairney being sidelined for at least three months. Cairney said: “I was aboslutely gutted. The end of last season was a massive disappointment for me, but it was my own fault. I hadn’t started a game since the end of February, but to come in and play the way I did in the semi-final was absolutely shocking.
“Every player hit a bad patch. I did so – and how – at the wrong time. I felt I’d let the gaffer and the fans down. I love being at this club and I believed I owed them for what had happened.
“I had to prove to everyone that they were wrong, that I am good enough for this level so I was determined to come back strong and ready to go. I didn’t really take a break, I kept working over the summer, I was feeling really good and felt I’d done okay in pre-season so this was a real downer.”
Progress has been slow, Cairney only this week ridding himself of his crutches while he hopes he will soon dispense with the protective boot he has been wearing over the past few weeks. But he is wary of setting himself any targets.
He said: “Obviously the aim is to be back sooner rather than later, but I don’t want to go talking dates because there’s the danger of pushing yourself too hard and trying to come back more quickly than you should. I also don’t want to have a date in my head because then if you don’t make it there’s the danger you’ll feel down and disappointed again.
“So I will be guided by the physios and doctors. I’ll take their advice and work at their speed, At the moment it’s a case of getting treatment and working in the gym on a daily basis.”
Unfortunately, Cairney hasn’t found himself wanting for company in the treatment room at the club’s East Mains training centre with Hibs starting the new SPFL season without skipper James McPake, fellow defenders Tim Clancy and Ryan McGivern, and they have been joined in the past couple of weeks by Harris who suffered a broken ankle on the opening day of the season and, like Cairney, has been ruled out for three months.
Cairney, though, is a month into his rehabilitation and he admits watching others recover and rejoin Fenlon’s squad for training is almost as frustrating as witnessing a poor start to the season while he is helpless to lend a hand.
McPake, who suffered a back spasm early in that ill-fated home match against Malmo, has started running again, while Clancy, laid up as he recovered from summer surgery on his groin, is a couple of steps ahead of the club skipper in terms of a return to action.
Clancy said: “It’s been a bit busy in the treatment room over the past few weeks with so many of us out. It’s been thinning out a bit with the rest of the boys making progress. So it’s really only young Boozy and myself now.”
Undeterred by his injury, Cairney has been a familiar figure at Hibs matches although he admitted it’s been something of a struggle to get up and down stairs while on crutches. He said: “Thankfully I’m off them and the next stage will be to get the boot off and then start building up the ankle again.
“It was a struggle to get about on the crutches, especially getting up and down to my seat in the stand at Easter Road, but you want to be there to give your backing to your team-mates. They’ve been great with me, helping keep my spirits up while the likes of young Fraser Mullen has been getting me in to the training ground as I can’t drive because of the boot I have to wear.
“I can’t play at the moment so the only way I can help is by going along and lending my support.
“Obviously it’s been disappointing the way things have gone so far and not being able to play just adds to the sense of frustration. But the gaffer and the boys have been working hard, there’s a lot of new players who have come in and it does take a little bit of time for things to gel.
“Hopefully the point against Dundee United is a start and by the time I’m back there will be a few wins on the board and things will be looking much better.”