Exclusive: Toby Sibbick responds to Hearts fans' criticism as he opens up on what went wrong
Criticising Toby Sibbick became a regular pastime for some Hearts fans recently. The player is far from oblivious to the carping but also extremely driven to prove detractors wrong.
Social media tagging often means no escape for a footballer when form dips. Sibbick openly admits his performances wavered, resulting in him dropping out of the starting line-up in early September. A red card at Celtic Park two weeks previously only compounded matters. Thursday’s substitute outing against Fiorentina in Italy was his first appearance in almost a month.
The absence allowed time for reflection for a player who is still relatively young and inexperienced at 23. Discussions with manager Robbie Neilson at Riccarton centred around the versatile defender rediscovering the best version of himself on the field. He made a decent start in the Stadio Artemio Franchi despite Hearts’ 5-1 defeat.
In an exclusive Evening News interview, Sibbick explained how he coped with disapproving comments and why a previous issue at former club Barnsley helped him develop a useful thick skin. He stressed that any below-par displays do not equate to a lack of effort.
“We had a conversation in the manager’s office and he said he just wants the old me to come back out. I need to be myself,” said the Englishman. “I know my performances haven't been the best. I think I suffered when I didn't have the greatest game. That maybe knocked my confidence a bit.
“I don't really look but sometimes you get tagged in things [on social media]. We are all human, some of us make mistakes. Of course it's their club and they want their club to succeed. We play for the fans and we just want the best for them as well.”
As Hearts results began to falter – they have now won only three of their last 13 games – Sibbick seemed to become an easy target. Was he getting the brunt of some people’s frustration?
“Maybe, but I think that's the case anywhere in football. You see top players getting targeted and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. You just need to be mentally strong and tough to pull through these things. Hopefully one day I can turn a page with a few of them, so they can see that I am actually trying and giving my best. No-one wants to do badly for the club or themselves. I'm just going to continue giving my all.
“I had it before at Barnsley. I was only 19 at the time and it was pretty new to me. I came in, started playing every game in a new league. It was the first time I'd moved away from home [in London] and it was tough. It's happened again now but you see the best players in the world getting criticised. You can't pay too much attention to it otherwise you will just get bogged down. You can lose confidence in yourself.
"Everyone is entitled to an opinion at the end of the day, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's right. You just have to shut it all out and perform as best you can. It's more about what the manager thinks and what the club thinks. I know the fans are very opinionated and that happens anywhere. They pay good money to watch us play, but I will do what the manager asks me to do.”
On Thursday, the manager asked Sibbick to replace injured right-back Nathaniel Atkinson after just 16 minutes of a pulsating Europa Conference League tie in Italy. Fiorentina were already ahead and looking to score more. If there was a time to sink or swim, that was it. The player responded with character to deliver a sound performance against quality opposition.
"Hopefully Natty's problem isn't too serious. It's been a while since I actually played so I'm grateful I did get on the pitch,” commented Sibbick. “We didn't quite get near Fiorentina enough and we weren't physical enough in the first half. I think we showed them too much respect. By that time were already 4-0 down and it could have been more.
“We came in at half-time and said: 'It's not good enough, we need to get closer.' Even in Scotland, if you play like that you will get battered. We were a lot more solid and physical in the second half and Fiorentina didn't like it. We need to take the second-half positives into Sunday against Aberdeen.”
Sibbick is ready to step in if needed with fellow defenders Michael Smith, Craig Halkett and Kye Rowles nursing injuries in addition to Atkinson. Having played right-back, centre-back and midfield for Hearts, the subject of his best position is a pertinent one.
“It's a good question. All my career I've been moved around,” he said. “I haven't really had a full stint in a team where I've had one position. If we are playing a back three, right centre-half maybe. If we play a back four, then probably centre-back or right-back. That's probably where I'll end up long-term. I'm still only young and it's good for my career to play different positions. Long-term I'd like to have a position of my own.”
He generally feels more like a defender than a midfielder. “I think so, yeah. I haven't really played midfield much in my career. I've been asked to play there at times and I don't mind. I'm fit and I like to get about and tackle. I enjoy it.
“Thursday was my first game in quite a while and I was tired. It's a mental thing so I'll recover and if I'm need on Sunday I have to put in a performance. I enjoyed the experience against Fiorentina. They have a striker [Luka Jovic] who was worth £60m not too long ago. That is where every player wants to play, at those big venues. The score didn't go our way but we still have two games left in the group.”