Paul Cairney believes Terry Butcher can help kick-start his Easter Road career after the new Hibs boss ended seven months in the wilderness by pitching him straight into his first starting line-up.
The midfielder had threatened to become the forgotten man at the Capital club after what he freely admits was a horror show in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final, hooked at half-time with First Division Falkirk three goals up and threatening to cause a shock before a stirring fightback clinched a second-successive final.
Former manager Pat Fenlon didn’t pick Cairney again for the remainder of the season and the ex-Queen’s Park and Partick Thistle player was dealt a further blow when, having worked throughout the summer to force his way back into the picture, he suffered serious ankle ligament damage in the final training session before the ill-fated second leg of the Europa League tie with Swedish outfit Malmo.
But, despite battling his way back to full fitness once again, Cairney found himself remaining on the sidelines. A seat on the bench was the closest he came to a return even though Fenlon bemoaned a lack of width, with teenage winger Alex Harris also crocked, leaving the Irishman to insist £200,000 signing James Collins would come good provided he got the necessary service from the flanks.
However, Cairney’s frustration turned to pleasure when Butcher gave him the nod as Hibs travelled to the 26-year-old’s home town of Paisley where the Easter Road side ended a run of four-successive defeats with a battling draw against the Buddies.
As delighted as he was, Cairney today admitted that, like his team-mates, his goal now must be to continue impressing the big Englishman as he seeks to lift Hibs into the top half of the Scottish Premiership table and the immediate target of negotiating a tricky Scottish Cup tie away to bogey team Ross County this weekend.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” Cairney agreed, “I’d been working hard trying to get my place back, but when the gaffer came in he asked why I have not been playing. I was determined to repay him by turning in a performance in my first match since the middle of April.
“The chance had been a long time coming and obviously my match fitness needs to improve, I know that. I feel fit but I need to get those short, sharp sprints which will come with, hopefully, more game time.”
Having been overlooked for so long, Cairney would have been forgiven if he’d viewed the managerial change with some concern, but he believes that under Butcher he can reclaim the early form he displayed last season when a late equaliser at Celtic Park and a winner against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park made him a fans’ favourite before his star waned.
He said: “These things can work both ways. The new gaffer has come in with a clean slate. I think he knew what I can do having played against Inverness Caley last season, but I have to thank him for showing faith in me in his first game and to repay that by continuing to work hard in training, by getting more games and restoring that bit of sharpness over a couple of yards that you need at this level.”
Despite his predicament, Cairney insisted he hadn’t begun to worry about his long-term future at Easter Road nor, with the January transfer window looming, had he wondered if he might have to seek fresh pastures. He admitted, however, that he had felt frustrated by the lack of opportunity in recent weeks.
He said: “It was hard to take not playing, training Monday to Friday then finding yourself sitting up in the stand or, at best, on the bench, come a Saturday when you know you are fit and all you need is some game time. Everyone wants to play and it was difficult for me, especially when the old gaffer kept on saying he needed wide players.
“However, it’s my job and I had to be professional. I just kept going in training. I never looked as far ahead as January, although my agent had phoned to ask if I was part of the old gaffer’s plans and he said I was.
“Now, though, the new boss has come in, he has his own plans and it’s a new start. He is an infectious character, he has played at the highest level, captained England and so to be in his first starting 11 means I must have shown up well in training which is good from my point of view.”
Having been inactive – at least in terms of first team action for so long, it was understandable Cairney found himself running out of steam shortly after the hour mark when he was replaced by Tom Taiwo. But, he insisted, he was happy enough both with his own individual performance and that of the team.
“I felt my fitness was good,” he said, “But the gaffer said if I got 60 or 70 minutes it would be good for me. He asked me how I felt when I came off and when I told him ‘tired’, he said I’ll get fitter and fitter with more games so hopefully I’ll start again against Ross County.”
While well aware Hibs don’t boast the best of records against the Staggies, Cairney believes Butcher’s own experiences of having faced them as boss of near neighbours Caley – Inverness losing just one of six Highland derbies last season and enjoying a Cup victory over Derek Adams’ side – can only help the Edinburgh team as will the gritty display against St Mirren.
He said: “I thought we were perhaps a little bit too eager against Saints in the first half with everyone, naturally, wanting to impress the new gaffer. We played a wee bit too quickly when we should have slowed it down a bit, but in the second half we settled and played well.
“It was always going to be difficult. They are on a good run and are on a bit of a high, whereas we’d lost four games. But we know we have a good group of players although confidence has been a bit low. However, I thought you could see that growing as the game went on. We had nearly 1200 supporters in Paisley and I think we’ll be taking another big crowd up to Dingwall.
“It’s going to be tough, we don’t have a good record against them, but the gaffer will have really good knowledge of them from his time with Inverness. So it’s one we are looking forward to, although we know we will have to work as hard as we did against St Mirren.”