Ivan Sproule is likely to be engulfed by a sea of emotion as he’s confronted by the moment he never thought he’d face tomorrow, lining up against Hibs instead of pulling on his beloved green and white jersey.
He insisted, though, that his cherished memories of Easter Road will be banished – for the next 90 minutes anyway – at the first blast of referee Bobby Madden’s whistle, his entire focus concentrated on the here and now rather than the past as he bids to help Ross County clock up their third win of the season over Pat Fenlon’s side.
Points for the Staggies and ensuring they take another step towards consolidating their place in the SPL will, he declared, be his only concern, one which he claimed those he called team-mates only a few days ago and the small band of Hibs fans who are likely to make the 350-mile round trip to Dingwall will fully understand.
There was, however, one solemn promise from the man Tony Mowbray plucked from the obscurity of tiny Irish outfit Institute for a £5000 fee which has proved to be one of the transfer bargains in Hibs’ history, if he scores on what will be his home debut there will be no wild celebrations, no badge kissing or the like.
With fate being so fickle, it would surprise few if the 31-year-old was to get the winner at Victoria Park but if that were to happen, Sproule vowed: “Hibs have done too much for me and my family for anything like that. I have too much respect for the club, my old team-mates, the manager and coaches, the people who work behind the scenes at Easter Road and, of course, the fans so there would be no celebration.
“Of course I’d be happy to score and I am sure everyone would recognise that I’d only be doing my job which now is to try to win games for Ross County, to get the points which will help us towards our goal of staying in the SPL.
“I have to admit it’s a game I never thought I’d be involved in, playing against a team I had been involved with for a long, long time but, to be honest, I will handle it like any other match. Every game I’ve ever played in, wherever I have been I have done all I could to try to win it.
“I suppose there will be a different twist now and you never know, some of those Hibs fans who make the trip might boo me but it will be nice for me to see them because I never got the chance to properly say goodbye to them.
“Then there’s the boys in the team, guys I’ve played with this season and who I regard as personal friends. But they know, as I do, that when you cross that white line it is your own career you are concerned with and mine now lies with Ross County.” And it was for the sake of his own career that Sproule decided to seek pastures new with six months of his second spell with Hibs still to run, the former Northern Ireland international winger having become increasingly frustrated at a lack of action, finding himself on the bench or, even worse, sitting in the stand watching.
Only two starts in the first half of the season were never going to be enough to satisfy him but, he insisted, he left Easter Road heavy-hearted but with no regrets even if second time round life in Leith hadn’t been as enjoyable as his first, the highlights being a first goal in a 3-1 win at Celtic Park, that hat-trick at Ibrox and, of course, lifting the CIS Insurance Cup along with a clutch of international caps.
Shortly after that memorable day at Hampden in 2007, Sproule departed for a first time, spending four years in the English Championship with Bristol City, narrowly missing out on promotion to the Premier League itself, before joining Garry O’Connor in returning to his old stomping ground only to spend last season battling against the threat of relegation.
They may have ignored the maxim which dictates you should never go back to the scene of previous success, but today Sproule insisted: “You can’t tell me what is going to happen tomorrow, nor can I. Last season was difficult but no-one could envisage what was going to happen. Obviously I didn’t think we were going to struggle but we did while, at the same time, we got to the Cup final, a sore one to take but still a Cup final.
“It was a tough season, but it was a proud moment for me when I was asked to wear the captain’s armband for a spell, something many, many players will have dreamt of at Easter Road but it didn’t happen for them. What I didn’t enjoy was watching a lot of football this season. I didn’t feel I was getting a fair crack but managers have decisions to make and I have always respected that and just got my head down and worked away in training. I felt I had to make the decision to get away and play again. I feel I have a lot of football left in me and while it was a shame it ended as it did, it’s happened to a lot more football players than me and it will happen to plenty more in the future.”
Given Hibs’ battle against relegation, Pat Fenlon’s players securing 11th place and retaining their status in the top flight only on the second last day of the season, some might have questioned Sproule’s decision to join Ross County, a side new to the SPL and one which was then second bottom.
However, two goals and a man-of-the-match performance on his debut in a 4-1 win away to St Mirren followed by a point at Tannadice at the weekend have, however, brightened life considerably with the aim now being to clinch a third successive win over Hibs and make further progress up the table.
Sproule said: “There were a couple of sniffs from England but nothing concrete and also in Scotland but Derek Adams, who had been assistant to Colin Calderwood when I came back to Hibs, spoke to me about getting back to enjoying my football.
“He believed I still had a massive part to play in the SPL and sometimes you just need a manager to have that belief in you, to put an arm around you. Ross County are a small club but with big ambitions. They are trying to build and progress, to stay in the league this season and climb the table in subsequent years and hopefully I can help them do that.”
Sproule immediately vindicated Adams’ decision with that brace in Paisley, afterwards claiming he had a point to prove, a statement which many took as something of a swipe at Fenlon.
However, he insisted that wasn’t the case, but a riposte to those who had been “chirping” that his best days were behind him. He said: “Pat Fenlon is the manager of Hibs, he has a job to do and he decided I was not the man to play in that position for him. I cannot be sore, I left with his best wishes and for certain when I see him tomorrow I will be the first to shake his hand and wish him all the best.”
Those platitudes, though, will be suspended for the duration of the match as both teams seek to improve their respective positions. Sproule said: “I’ve played my entire career in Scotland in the SPL and I’ve had four years in the Championship and anyone who knows me knows I will never shy away from a challenge, tomorrow night, though, will be that little bit different although whoever plays at left back for Hibs can expect a scrap, that’s the way I play.
“Ross County have had something of a hex over Hibs going back to those Scottish Cup matches a few years ago but every game is different and I am sure Hibs will be coming up here looking to end that poor run.”
Sproule has underlined his commitment to the Highland side having already moved his wife and two sons to Inverness but, he revealed, he hopes to return to Easter Road yet again in the future.
“My sons are still running round the house in their green-and-white strips and I will always be a fan. I have great affection for Hibs. There are so many people who have been wonderful to me and my family I’d never say a bad word about the club and hopefully I’ll be back – as a supporter.”