It had been a long time coming, but when the call eventually came, Tom Taiwo’s face was split by a grin as wide as Leith Walk is long.
Most Hibs fans probably thought they’d seen the last of the little midfielder who, apparently, had been cast into the wilderness by new boss Terry Butcher alongside Kevin Thomson, Rowan Vine and Tim Clancy, with little trace of the quartet having been seen over the course of the past couple of months.
But while admitting Butcher had told him, in a candid face-to-face chat, he envisaged limited playing time for the former Leeds United, Chelsea and Carlisle United midfielder, Taiwo was today hoping his surprise appearance against Celtic will help him persuade the Hibs manager to reappraise his thinking.
However, if Butcher was frank in his assessment of where Taiwo stood, the 23-year-old was adamant that, contrary to various newspaper reports, he’d never been told his Hibs career was at an end. Refusing to describe himself a “victim” of the managerial upheaval that saw Butcher replace Pat Fenlon in November, Taiwo said: “He never used those words, no.
“The manager spoke to players individually, told them where he sees them playing, where he feels their careers are at and what he feels will be best for their careers. He had a chat with myself which has culminated in me not being in and around the squad. He told me playing time would be very limited, but contrary to reports, myself and the other boys have continued to train hard.
“I’m not a victim of the change of manager, definitely not. I think different managers have different ideas, different philosophies and at the very start they have to make a decision, who is going to play and who is not. The team got off to a great start, which made it difficult to force my way in.
“It’s very difficult to keep everybody happy because everyone wants to play. I’m not happy when I am on the bench. I am even less happy if I am in the stand. You can’t afford to be big-time or a bad egg around the place because all you want to do is play football. All I could do was bide my time and hope I’d get the chance to stake my claim again.”
As disappointed as Taiwo might have been with what Butcher had to say – his last first-team appearance coming in the Scottish Cup win over Ross County at the end of November – he refused to “spit the dummy” and resolved simply to keep working hard in training in the hope a further opportunity would come his way.
He said: “I think by the manager selecting me, he has shown he has been happy with my efforts in training. It wasn’t a case of doing it to prove anyone wrong, but for myself, my own pride. Just imagine if I had not trained as hard as I had or hadn’t worked as hard as I did in the Under-20 game at St Mirren last Wednesday ... it could have been someone else getting the nod instead of me.
“I was told on Saturday morning I’d be playing. I was really excited at the thought of playing in front of a big crowd, against a top team. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. That it was Celtic didn’t matter, it could have been any team in the league and I’d have been just as excited knowing that my hard work had paid off.”
Although Celtic ran out 4-0 winners, as far as Hibs were concerned, the final scoreline flattered Celtic, with Hoops boss Neil Lennon himself admitting that. And as disappointed as he was, Taiwo insisted he was happy with his own efforts, his opinion shared by the man who matters most, Butcher, who described his performance until he ran out of steam eight minutes from time as “terrific.”
“I hope I did enough,” he the 23-year-old said. “The manager said he was happy enough with my performance, so hopefully I’ve done enough to be involved again in the [Scottish] Cup match against Raith Rovers.”
Despite the final outcome, Taiwo enjoyed the match. “The first goal was poor by the defensive standards since the new manager came in,” he said, “but we reacted in the right way. We matched them and were possibly even better than them for a long spell. But a couple of dubious decisions went against us. We were disappointed, really disappointed, with the handball given against Michael [for the second goal]. You couldn’t do anything about the boy sticking the free-kick into the top corner, but we felt a little bit hard done by. There was a challenge on James Collins we felt was a penalty and another push in the box we thought merited a spot-kick. I know it’s all ifs and buts, but we didn’t feel we deserved a 4-0 in any way.”
The history books, however, will record the final result as exactly that, but that bald statistic doesn’t, in Taiwo’s estimation, even offer a hint of how closely contested the match was, adamant that the towering figure of Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster had saved the champions. The former Newcastle United player pulled off two good saves from Abdellah Zoubir in the space of as many minutes before producing what Lennon described as an “unbelievable” stop to prevent Sam Stanton equalising.
In doing so, Forster racked up a tenth successive match without conceding a goal, a statistic Taiwo admitted had to be admired. He said: “As the manager mentioned after the game, their goalkeeper has had to work harder than Ben Williams and yet they’ve won 4-0. Forster kept them in the game at that point – it could have been 2-1 to us without those saves.
“Even when their back four doesn’t play as well as they can, there’s that man mountain behind them. Perhaps we might have been a bit more clinical, but we’re not going to be coming up against a goalkeeper like him in every game.”