STUNG by criticism of his performance in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, David Wotherspoon will be a man on a mission if he gets the nod this weekend to face a high-flying Dundee United side containing a trio of acquaintances he has the utmost admiration for.
As he prepares to lock horns with burgeoning Scotland Under-21 colleagues Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven, as well as former Hibs teammate John Rankin, Wotherspoon has been trying to banish from his mind a harrowing day at Tynecastle in which he was, by his own admission, out of sorts.
The Perth-born midfielder didn’t need anyone to tell him he had failed to reach the standards he expects of himself as Hibs slumped to a meek 2-0 defeat at the hands of city rivals Hearts at the weekend. But, as is the way in this bright new age of social networking, some charmer claiming to be a Hibs supporter decided to let the 22-year-old know what he thought of his display in the form of a foul-mouthed character assassination on twitter. Having been part of a Hibs team which has generally struggled for the past two years and more, Wotherspoon has become accustomed to dealing with abuse, whether it be directly from the stands, or via the internet.
To his credit, the Scotland Under-21 internationalist refuses to wallow in self-pity and is instead endeavouring to prove his doubters wrong with a much-improved display when rampant United come to town on Saturday. “I’ve taken a bit of criticism on twitter and stuff like that,” he said. “It hurts when you get stuff like what I had after the Hearts game, but you’ve got to take the abuse when it comes because it’s part of the game. You just have to try and get on with it and not let it get to you. You react to it by trying to go out the next weekend and prove them wrong. The fans care so much about the club that you just have to try and take it on board and bounce straight back. Criticism is never nice but it definitely helps you focus because you want to prove them wrong. I’ve had a couple of tweets in the past so hopefully it doesn’t become a regular thing. I’m sure every footballer on twitter gets their fair share of criticism. Part of being a footballer is having thick skin because you’re always going to get criticised, so I don’t react to it. You’ve just got to try and take it in your stride. I don’t blame the guy who sent it - he’s obviously feeling it after the derby and I know I didn’t have a good game myself.”
Wotherspoon was bemused by his lacklustre display on Sunday, and admits his performances haven’t been up to scratch since he helped Scotland Under-21s to an impressive draw with the Netherlands last month. “I was happy with how things were going up until about a month ago,” he reveals. “I played in the international game and felt good, but since then I’ve just not been the same. I know myself I didn’t have a good game against Hearts.
“I don’t know what was wrong with me. I felt sluggish and a wee bit slow during the game. Sometimes things just don’t happen for you, but, by the same token, you’ve got to go out there and make things happen for yourself. To do that, you need to really prepare well and focus properly.
“If things don’t happen for you, you need to at least make sure the guy you’re up against doesn’t do any better. I’m just trying to recover as best I can and hopefully I can make up for it at the weekend. I just want to get back on the pitch to try and forget about last weekend. We had a bad week but we’ve got to try and pick up where we left off the week before [against Ayr]. We need to show the fans that we really care about the club and want to do well because I don’t think that showed at the weekend. We let ourselves down and we let the fans down. Before the Hearts game we showed our will and our character to dig out some good results and clean sheets, so we need to shut up shop and be really positive at the other end.”
That will be easier said than done against a United side earning rave reviews. While Wotherspoon and Hibs teammate Paul Hanlon leave Scotland Under-21 gatherings to return to the confidence-sapping grind of a relegation battle, their international colleagues, Russell and Mackay-Steven, are positively flourishing at their club. The Hibs pair, understandably given their relative youthfulness, have often looked more at ease playing in a prospering Scotland side than they have for their at-times beleaguered club. While he is certainly no shirker, Wotherspoon admits international duty can provide an invigorating escape when times are hard at Easter Road. “When you’re struggling in the league, obviously confidence and morale isn’t the best so the international breaks are sometimes good,” he admits.
“When you go away with the Under-21s you’re playing with some of the best players in the country, so you’re trying your hardest to get in the team and you’re also playing against some of the best young players from other countries. It’s a great opportunity for us when we go away.”
On Saturday, he will find himself in opposition to Russell and Mackay-Steven, the two blond bombshells who have been busy wreaking havoc on the SPL’s defences.
“Johnny and Gary have really kicked on this year,” said Wotherspoon. “They’ve shown they’ve got talent and they’re doing really well for themselves, so we’ll need to keep them quiet. I only really know them from Scotland gatherings but they’re both good lads and they’ve both done well for the Under-21s. Gary’s a really tricky player. I remember playing with him in a previous Scotland set-up before he went down to Liverpool and you could see then that he was a good player.
“He’s had his bad luck with injuries but he seems to have put them behind him this year and he’s really looking the part. Johnny’s doing really well as well. He’s got a good left foot and plenty pace. Johnny and Gary are the two players that really drive United.”
Russell and Mackay-Steven may indeed be the jewels in the United crown, but another player making a big impression at Tannadice this season is Rankin. The little midfielder, who left Easter Road a year ago after falling out of favour under Colin Calderwood, was widely derided by the Hibs support during his time in Edinburgh, and the perception seems to be that he has suddenly morphed into one of the best midfield players in the country since his switch to Tannadice last summer. Wotherspoon, however, doesn’t buy such talk, insisting Rankin was nowhere near the hapless dud some Hibs fans portrayed him as. “John’s done really well at United - I’m really happy for him,” Wotherspoon continued. “He’s a good lad and always liked a laugh around the changing room. Sometimes things work for players at certain times and sometimes they don’t. John always worked hard here and was always very professional so, to me, he’s just carried that on at Dundee United. I’ve always rated him. He’s got a great left foot on him and he works as hard as anyone - he’s an absolute machine.”
It could be said that Dundee United right now are the epitome of everything that Wotherspoon and his down-trodden Hibs teammates aspire to be: vibrant, carefree and upwardly-mobile.