Crocked Hibs star Michael Nelson will make his comeback tonight wearing a specially-fitted face mask to protect the cheekbone which was smashed in a horror clash of heads with Celtic striker Amido Balde.
The 33-year-old will turn out for the Easter Road outfit’s Under-20 side against Hamilton at New Douglas Park (kick-off 6pm) and, he revealed, he already has his eyes on forcing his way into new boss Terry Butcher’s plans as the Capital club begin their latest assault on the Scottish Cup, away to Ross County on Saturday.
Nelson needed an operation having had his left cheekbone broken in three places in the dying minutes of last month’s 1-1 draw with the Scottish Premiership leaders, a match which, ironically, resulted in Celtic boss Neil Lennon accusing Hibs, then under the charge of Pat Fenlon, of rough-house tactics. The outburst provoked a furious response from both the big defender and team-mate Rowan Vine.
Today, though, Nelson revealed there had been no complications following the surgery. Having returned to full training, he’s hoping tonight’s run-out will clear the way for him to be considered for the trip to Dingwall after he missed his first target of being fit for Butcher’s debut match as Hibs boss, the weekend encounter with St Mirren in Paisley.
Admitting he was still feeling some “numbness” on that side of his face – as he had earlier revealed he was suffering in an exclusive interview with the Evening News – Nelson said: “It’s just a case of wearing the mask and getting on with it. I had been running with the physio, going in with the boys, doing passing drills and then having balls thrown into the air for me to head without any challenges.
“But for the past two days it’s been back to normal – contact, crosses being put in and people challenging me. I’m fully back now, available for selection and hopefully tonight I can prove myself to the manager.”
While Nelson inches closer to contention, there was mixed news for Butcher on striker Paul Heffernan, who limped out of the draw against the Buddies after just five minutes having torn a muscle in his left thigh. The Hibs boss said: “He’ll be out for three to four weeks, but it could have been a lot worse.”
Meanwhile, Butcher revealed he’s looking to start laying a whole bunch of ghosts to rest when Hibs head for Dingwall this weekend, the former Rangers defender having never lifted the Scottish Cup and, like his new club, he has never tasted victory at Victoria Park, although his previous outfit Inverness Caley did knock the Staggies out of the competition following a replay last season.
Butcher insisted: “I said ‘How many times have we beaten Ross County’ to the players and they said ‘Never’. I haven’t won there, I never won the Scottish Cup, but that’s history. It’s in the past, but we are trying to create history. It’s another football match, simple as that.”
And Butcher believes Hibs’ experience of reaching the final in each of the last two seasons will stand his players in good stead, even if those outings to Hampden ended in bitter disappointment and extended the club’s cup hoodoo for yet another year.
He said: “Is it a poisoned chalice or a holy grail? Same thing really. It’s the Scottish Cup and history, there have definitely been better managers than me who haven’t achieved it. The players have already had two goes at it with two great runs to get to the final. They are pretty much used to it and that’s a positive fact. They know what it takes to get to a final and that is a massive help.
“They can probably tell me more about reaching the Scottish Cup final than I can tell them.”