Two summers ago, Sam Stanton was widely viewed as Hibs’ prized asset. Although the humble Leither is not the type to get carried away with such status, he admits he could never have imagined things unraveling quite as spectacularly as they have for him at Easter Road over the last two seasons.
As previous manager Alan Stubbs recruited a host of highly-regarded young midfielders – Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch, Fraser Fyvie, Liam Henderson and John McGinn to name five – Stanton, one of the few Hibs players to shine during Terry Butcher’s disastrous reign, found himself shunted to the periphery before falling out of contention entirely a few months into last season.
“Football’s funny – things can change very quickly,” Stanton told the Evening News. “One minute you can be there, the next you’re not.”
After going without any game time for the last three months of 2015 – his last competitive Hibs appearance remains a substitute outing in a 3-0 win at Queen of the South nine months ago – Stanton knew he needed to get out on loan to stop himself stagnating.
A run 16 games in which he scored three goals with Championship side Livingston in the last four months of last season was just what the midfielder needed. Stanton knew his exploits in West Lothian might not be enough to force his way back into Stubbs’ plans, but he was at least being given the chance to do what he does best, namely influence football matches from midfield and chip in with his fair share of goals.
The arrival of Neil Lennon as Stubbs’ successor at Hibs effectively represents an unexpected olive branch for Stanton, who remains contracted to the club until 2018. Although the new manager hasn’t held any in-depth talks with the 22-year-old, he has at least indicated, through media dispatches and his pre-season team selections, that he will be given a chance to force his way back into contention.
“It’s really nice to be back at Hibs,” Stanton said. “I want to cement myself here. I’ve been here a long time and it’s the club I supported as a boy so I want to stay here and play for Hibs. I think I can still get back into the team here.
“I’ve not really had a proper chance to speak to the manager because it’s still early in pre-season, but I’m sure he’ll speak to me soon about what’s happening. I think it’s just a case of him assessing the squad just now and working out who he likes and stuff like that. The manager’s given me a few chances already in pre-season which is nice.”
Stanton was an unused substitute in the first leg of the Europa League clash with Brondby at Easter Road last week. He knows, however, that after falling down the pecking order, he is not suddenly going to shoot back to the front of the queue when there are so many other distinguished midfielders at Easter Road.
As he bids to re-establish himself, the former Scotland Under-21 internationalist takes heart from the belief that he has not lost any of the ability which helped cast him as one of the brightest young prospects in the country in early 2014. Stanton insists he did not suffer any major form dip under Stubbs but was simply a victim of the fact the previous manager brought in so many central midfielders.
“We’ve got a very strong midfield, so it’s always going to be difficult to break into that,” he acknowledged. “My belief’s not been dented at all by what’s happened though. I always believe in my ability. I think I’m a good player, and I’ll never stop believing that.
“I never thought I’d made it at Hibs, but I never envisaged myself going from playing every week to not playing much at all. I never thought I was a definite in the first team or that I was better than anyone else, but I did have belief in my ability so I didn’t expect to fall out of the team so quickly.
“I think it was more down to the quality of players Alan Stubbs brought in than me losing form. I didn’t play many games at all under Alan, so I think the quality of midfielder he brought in was the biggest factor. Hopefully now that the manager has changed there will be more of a chance for me to get back in here. I don’t know how things would have panned out if Alan was still the manager. It may well have been the end for me at Hibs, but there’s a new manager now so I’ve just got to try and take my chance.”
Although Stanton didn’t want to leave Hibs last season, he knew it was the only option in order to maintain some level of match sharpness. In just four months on loan at Livingston, he started more games than he had managed in the previous season and a half under Stubbs. “The loan spell was good for me,” he said. “I started most of the games in the time I was there and it was just nice to play consecutive games again. We had a disappointing end to the season, in terms of getting relegated, but the main reason I went there was to play games. Now I’m back at Hibs and all I want to do is break into the team, play as many games as possible, play well and get Hibs promoted.”