Hibs fans may have been highly sceptical when Pat Fenlon made Partick Thistle midfielder Paul Cairney one of his first signings of the summer.
The 25-year-old was a low key arrival, one hardly likely to stir the imagination of a support desperately seeking a signal of Fenlon’s intent as he began the onerous task of rebuilding an Easter Road squad which had failed over the two previous seasons.
So picking up a First Division player who had never tasted action in the top flight – and on a free transfer at that – raised more than a few eyebrows among the Easter Road support, their misgivings heightened by a miserable performance on the opening day of the season as Fenlon’s new look side went down 3-0 to Dundee United.
Cairney, played in an unfamiliar holding role at Tannadice that day, wasn’t alone in failing to shine, the result and display leaving most fans fearing they were in for another long, hard season of suffering.
Since then, though, Hibs have undergone a remarkable transformation, Fenlon’s assembly of new faces – many of them virtually unknown before touching down in Edinburgh – gelling into a formidable unit, one which has stormed to the top of the SPL table, out in front by themselves ahead of champions Celtic.
The doubting Thomases within the green and white army have been all but silenced and their reservations regarding Cairney and more than a few others have vanished, the former Jags star having become as firm a favourite as skipper James McPake and goalscoring talisman Leigh Griffiths.
Cairney’s influence and rapid acceptance by the Hibs support has come as no surprise to one man, his former manager at Firhill, Jackie McNamara, who watched the 5ft 9in dynamo terrorise opposition defences throughout last season, scoring 15 goals including, famously, a hat-trick against Dundee at Dens Park with Fenlon an interested onlooker.
To date, Cairney has scored just once for Hibs – that memorable equaliser at Celtic Park which helped confirm the growing belief that Hibs, once again, meant business – but he has played just as pivotal a role in creating chances for others, as witnessed in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Dundee United when he had a hand in both goals.
McNamara himself was at Easter Road to see Cairney at first hand, enjoying in particular the player’s “nutmegging” of United defender Keith Watson as he set up Hibs’ second goal for Eion Doyle. Today McNamara revealed: “I knew the ‘meg’ was coming. Paul would to do that in training all the time and it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d given the United player a wee shout that it was coming.
“But I’m not surprised at all as to how well Paul is doing with Hibs. We saw his ability last season and, by all accounts, Paul and Leigh Griffiths have been Hibs’ best players this season. He’s playing in a different position at the moment. Last season we played him in behind the striker, which gave him the freedom to go and create in the last third.
“I can understand if there was a degree of scepticism among the Hibs fans. They want big names, but if you were to ask Partick fans, they’ll tell you they knew Hibs were getting a good player. I don’t think there’s a gulf between the SPL and the First Division in any case and I knew Paul could handle it, even playing on a big stage like Celtic Park where he scored that terrific goal.
“Good players can play anywhere.”
Cairney, whose career began with a rebuff from his hometown club, St Mirren, as being “too wee” before he picked up the pieces at Queen’s Park, has himself admitted it took him a while to find his feet in his new surroundings, but now McNamara believes he is ready to really shine.
He said: “Possibly Paul needed that wee bit of self-belief but he has that desire to go and do it. He’s done well so far and you can see there’s a real expectation from the Hibs fans that something is going to happen when he gets the ball in the last third.
“Paul can be pretty deceptive. He’s a ‘chunky’ wee boy but he’s got a burst of pace and a good football brain. He scored a lot of goals for us and his performance at Dens Park that day was fantastic. He might only have got one goal so far for Hibs, but he’s been heavily involved in crafting lots of chances for Griffiths and Doyle.”
Cairney may be gone, but he is not forgotten at Firhill, and neither has he forgotten his four years in Maryhill where he has been a regular watching his old team, like his new one top their league, his latest visit coinciding with Thistle’s 5-1 demolition of promotion rivals Dunfermline.
McNamara said: “Of course we wanted to keep Paul and we tried to do so, although it was going to be difficult. Because of his age we didn’t get any compensation for him, but everyone here is delighted he is doing well. He was a popular figure at Firhill. The lads are still close to him and are happy to see him come along when he can to watch us.”
McNamara admitted Cairney’s departure was a huge loss for Partick, but thankfully for them they have overcome that setback with Steve Lawless, having joined from Motherwell in the summer, scoring nine goals already, while former Hibs youngster Sean Welsh, his career at Easter Road blighted by injury, has been starring in the Jags’ midfield.
The Thistle boss said: “We’ve got a lot of clubs sniffing around our players which tells you everything is going well. The lads are hungry and getting better all the time. To beat Dunfermline 5-1 was a great result, but we have big few weeks coming up now. Steve has done well for us while Sean has been outstanding, although he’s hurt his ankle in training and will be out for a few weeks.”