Danny Handling knows better than most just how intense the competition for places is in the Hibs team, the 21-year-old’s appearance against Dumbarton his first start since the turn of the year.
Having apparently become a first-team regular – he had started 13 consecutive matches – Handling suddenly found himself sitting on the bench before suffering the shock of not even making the 18-man squad for the trip to Ibrox a week past Friday.
So it came as something of a relief to find his name among those facing Dumbarton, the strength in depth for head coach Alan Stubbs all too evident with both Scott Allan and Sam Stanton ruled out through illness and club captain Liam Craig hit with a one-game suspension.
Handling, though, accepts Stubbs’ assertion that team selection is for the good of all and not individuals, a fact reflected in his decision to go with a new partnership up front in Dominique Malonga and Franck Dja Djedje, a move which saw teenage striker Jason Cummings named among the substitutes despite being, prior to kick-off, the club’s leading scorer.
Stubbs was vindicated as Dja Djedje opened the scoring before Malonga reclaimed his mantle of top scorer with a double to take his tally thus far to 13. The head coach also revealed he had given another new signing, Keith Watson, the nod ahead of David Gray who is still regaining full fitness after surgery, as he begins to rotate his squad with the Championship play-offs and, hopefully, an extended Scottish Cup run, to come.
It’s a far cry from the beginning of the season when Stubbs arrived at Easter Road to find he didn’t have enough players to name a team, but the arrivals in January of Tomas Cerny, Dja Djedje, Watson, Fraser Fyvie and Martin Boyle have given him the strength in depth he has been seeking.
Handling said: “Obviously it’s frustrating and annoying when you aren’t making the starting line-up. But the gaffer has his reasons. He is the manager of the club, there to make tough decisions and you have to respect that.
“I think he actually wants you to be frustrated and annoyed at yourself for being left out. It was a matter of being patient but not making the 18 at Ibrox was the most disappointed I have been as I’d been on the bench in previous games. So to find I hadn’t even got that far was something of a surprise.
“But competition in our midfield is very tough. We already had Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch, Scott Robertson, Liam Craig, Sam and myself in there and then Fraser Fyvie arrives as well.
“There’s real quality in there, the gaffer has maybe surprised a few people with the players he’s managed to bring in and it’s all coming together as you can see with our performances and results.
“It’s the same throughout the team, though, as we saw with Dominique and Franck starting up front against Dumbarton. They are both very good players and, as we have seen, they know where the target is. No-one really knew too much about Dom when he first came in but he hit the ground running and now Franck is among the goals.
“We’ve got a few strikers now – with Farid El Alagui about to come back after his injury – and they’ve all got goals so that particular battle for places can only be good for us.
“The guys at the back have been brilliant all season, very solid and that gives us a platform to build on and again there’s a fight for places with David (Gray) and Jordon Forster on the bench on Saturday.
“The gaffer’s philosophy is quite simple, play well and you’ll keep you place. If you don’t, then someone else will get in. You can’t complain about that. It goes without saying I was delighted to be back in at the weekend. I enjoyed it but I was a wee bit disappointed not to score. I had a few chances, but my shots were a bit wayward. The good thing, though, was I was in the right place at the right time to get a shot away.”
The options in terms of personnel available to Stubbs also leads to a flexibility in formations, the 3-5-2 deployed to great effect against Rangers replaced by a more familiar midfield “diamond” for the visit of Dumbarton which again proved highly effective as Hibs controlled the game from the first minute to last.
Handling said: “The gaffer said right from the start he didn’t want to stick to one system. He wanted to rotate things which he has done and, I think, the boys have adapted well to whatever he wants and are enjoying the style of football he wants us to play.”
But while the fresh blood brought in by Stubbs has given Hibs a new impetus, Handling, as a product of the club’s renowned youth system himself, is also well aware that youngsters pushing for that breakthrough can also help intensify competition for places, 18-year-old Conner Duthie becoming the latest to enjoy a taste of first-team action as he replaced Handling for the final few minutes on Saturday.
Recalling his own debut at the age of 17, Handling, now 21, said: “It’s great to see the youngsters coming through. Lewis Allan, now on loan at Dumfermline, and Scott Martin have already had a wee bit of it already this season. I’ve played a few times with the under-20s in the past month or so, something I always enjoy doing.
“Joe McBride has a good squad and has them playing good football.
“Conner is a very good, technical player. He works his hardest, has a great attitude and is always listening to what the first-team players have to say. He’s a bit like Jason Cummings in a way, he seems to have come from nowhere to be in the first-team squad. Hopefully, along with a few others, he’ll soon be pushing for more.”