TOM SOARES must have felt a heavy sense of relief when Hibs boss Pat Fenlon called to offer him the chance to resuscitate a career that has stalled during four seasons at Stoke City.
The former England under-21 player has been starved of games for the vast majority of his three-and-a-half years at the Britannia Stadium but was signed on loan by Fenlon earlier this week, effectively ending his association with parent club Stoke, where he is out of contract this summer.
At the age of 25, Soares had become used to a place in the first-team shadows at The Potters, but the man who helped set Soares’ promising career in motion says the player can bounce back to make a significant impact at Easter Road.
Iain Dowie handed the then 17-year-old his debut at Crystal Palace, and the Reading-born midfielder’s stock lifted off with the Eagles.
Dowie, pictured below, says that while the player’s star has waned since his £1.25 million move to Stoke in 2008, Soares will have not lost much of the talent that earned him four national caps as an England under-21 internationalist.
“It’s all there, still in the locker,” insisted Dowie.
“Tom’s a great young man and is not frightened of a challenge.
“I like him, and I thought he’d be a real player. He played centre midfield and I have to say, from my time at Palace, I thought he’d become an outstanding, top-class player.
“He has wonderful legs, is good in the air, aggressive, and has good pace.”
Soares’ last league appearance for Stoke was in December 2008, with his last competitive game more than a year ago, as a 79th-minute substitute in their extra-time win at Cardiff in the FA Cup.
He has perhaps suffered from Stoke’s burgeoning reputation and increasing ability to attract top name players. Irish internationalist Glenn Whelan, former Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant, and Matthew Etherington are all ahead of Soares in the midfield pecking order and have thus rendered the 25-year-old a peripheral figure.
“It can happen, but it’s a case of keeping your belief,” said Dowie. “Tom has belief in his natural attributes, but he needs regular football. Hibs can benefit from that – they need to, given the position they’re in.
“It depends how Pat [Fenlon] will play him. For me, he can play anywhere in a midfield four or five. He’s best employed in a midfield two or three, in the middle of the park. Listen, he has great quality, can put crosses in, and has pace and drive. He can defend and is aggressive in the tackle, but he can get forward as well.
“He’s got a great smile and he’s a very good lad, good humour, he’ll not dominate the dressing-room but he’ll get along with everyone.”
A grafting defensive midfielder to partner the impressive Isaiah Osbourne and protect a shaky defence is perhaps exactly what Fenlon requires, but Soares can not afford to show any rustiness at a time in the season where Hibs must show their mettle.
The new arrival, however, must look back at his time with Stoke and ponder: what if? Indeed, the Potters had such faith in Soares that they handed him his Premier League debut immediately after signing him.
He then started the following five matches, in which Stoke gained a credible ten points from a possible 15. The undoing of his first-team chances at the Britannia appears to have been a double-header of defeats, at Blackburn Rovers and Hartlepool. Since then, he has started just a handful of games in cup competitions.
The whirlwind episode in Soares’ career continued elsewhere, and he was farmed out to Charlton Athletic for the second half of the 2008/09 season. He was again loaned out the following campaign after three starts in Stoke’s Carling Cup campaign, this time to Sheffield Wednesday, where he suffered the second relegation of his career as t-he Owls plummeted to League One.
Since demotion 18 months ago, he has played 41 minutes of competitive football, in an FA Cup win at Cardiff in January 2011. Despite the pressure of entering a crucial juncture in his career and having hardly played recently, Soares will grasp the chance Hibs have offered, says Dowie.
“First and foremost, it will be interesting for him to go there. I follow the SPL, and I feel Hibs should be far too good for a relegation battle. For Tom, what will come will come, but he will not be intimidated. He’s 6ft 2in and is not afraid of a scrap.”