Jordon Forster is ready to come out of cold storage and into the white-hot heat of an Edinburgh derby after starting a match for the first time in almost six months on Wednesday.
A broken foot followed by an operation to remove his appendix sidelined the big defender who, when fit, found himself still kicking his heels as Hibs clocked up a run of 15 matches unbeaten, a record which restricted the 21-year-old to three substitute appearances and a mere 18 minutes of action.
But hamstring injuries suffered by fellow defenders David Gray and then Keith Watson opened the door for a return, one which Forster gratefully grabbed as Hibs put three successive defeats behind them with a win over Dumbarton, coincidentally the last side he had faced way back on October 11.
The victory keeps alive Hibs’ hopes of pipping Rangers to second place in the Championship.
However, as welcome as those three points were, Forster conceded it’s now a case of every one of Hibs’ remaining four matches falling into the “must win” category with a rejuvenated Ibrox side holding the advantage with one more game in hand.
To that end all the pressure would appear to be on Hibs as they prepare for Sunday’s final Edinburgh derby of the season, Hearts boss Robbie Neilson, with the title safely secured with something to spare, able to rest a clutch of key players as the Jambos disposed of Alloa Atheltic on a night when their Capital neighbours had to battle all the way for victory.
Forster, though, insisted the differing circumstances the respective clubs find themselves in won’t be a factor come kick-off with, despite the yawning points gap which separates them, previous results suggesting that on the day there is, in fact, little to separate them, Hearts having achieved the only victory in the three clashes thus far.
He said: “I don’t think as champions it will be a case of Hearts relaxing. All credit to them, they have played well all season and been very consistent. But going into a derby it doesn’t matter where you are in the league or what’s gone on in previous games. It’s a derby. It will be fiery, I can assure you of that and the fact they are champions doesn’t mean it will be any different.
“That Robbie Neilson perhaps rested a few players the other night shows you he was probably looking ahead to Sunday. We didn’t have that luxury, though. We’re pushing for the play-offs and hopefully second place. We’ll be giving it 100 per cent in every game. Taking second is going to be difficult given results in recent weeks but if we are going to have any chance we have to win every single game and that’s what we are aiming to do.”
Having lost to Rangers, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South, Forster, who made his first-team debut in a 2-1 victory at Tynecastle two years ago when Ross Caldwell grabbed a last-minute winner, agreed emerging with the three points from the trip to Dumbarton was crucial, both in terms of keeping Hibs in the chase for second and in terms of confidence.
He said: “Our performances have maybe dropped slightly recently although we still felt we had done enough to win those games. I thought we played well in spells against Dumbarton but the main thing was the three points and being able to go into Sunday off the back of a win.”
If the Bet Butler Stadium provided the backdrop for Forster’s return it was also the setting for striker Farid El Alagui’s first start since the end of August when he ruptured his Achilles tendon. The rustiness possibly showed as the former Falkirk and Brentford striker missed a couple of early chances before seeing Sons’ goalkeeper Danny Rogers got his fingertip to El Alagui’s penalty to tip it onto the post although Stubbs insisted El Alagui wasn’t alone in passing up opportunities to steer Hibs to a far more comfortable triumph.
Forster, though, is in no doubt El Alagui will soon be back in the form which saw him score four goals in his first six matches for Hibs, one of them against Hearts. He said: “Farid will benefit from those 90 minutes on Wednesday night as I will. There were a few things in the match which, after a bit more game time, you know will come.
“Farid had chances which he probably should have converted but I’d said to him before the game that, like myself, it was a case of getting through the 90 minutes after so long out.”
Like El Alagui, Forster is now desperate to make up for lost time over the closing games of the season and, hopefully, the play-off matches which will follow. He said: “It’s been a slow season for me, having to have those two operations. And then when I got back the boys were doing so well they kept their places. The gaffer had also brought in a few more in January which meant competition all over the pitch was even fiercer and I had nothing to complain about. That said, though, it was good to get back out on the pitch, to be in the starting XI doing all the things I have missed over the past five months and more.”
While Stubbs praised Forster’s overall performance, he singled out the 21-year-old’s “impeccable” discipline in refusing to lose the rag when Dumbarton defender Chris Turner head-butted him barely two minutes after Mitch Megginson had cancelled out Paul Hanlon’s first-half header, an action with Sons boss Ian Murray reckoned probably cost his side the game as Hibs’ top scorer Jason Cummings took his tally for the season to 16.
Turner reacted angrily to a challenge from Forster which earned the Hibs man a yellow card and his reckless action left referee Craig Charleston with no option but to brandish the red card. Forster, though, was in forgiving mood, saying: “It wasn’t the best tackle from me, I have to admit.
“These things happen in football but what goes on out there stays on the pitch, you shake hands afterwards.” However, Forster emphasised that in the frenzied atmosphere of a derby cool heads are what will be needed. He said: “It took me five or six seconds to calm back down the other night but on Sunday discipline has to be 100 per cent. We will go into the game calm, collected and confident we can take the three points.”