Just under a year ago, Alex Harris played a major role in one of Hibs’ greatest-ever fightbacks – now he’s embroiled in a completely different kind of battle at the club.
Monday night’s 2-0 defeat to Aberdeen has plunged the Easter Road club further into the mire with just four points separating them from second bottom and relegation play-off occupants Partick Thistle in the Premiership table.
It’s all a far cry from April 13 last year when a wonder strike from Harris sparked an incredible Scottish Cup semi-final comeback against Falkirk at Hampden.
Harris and his team-mates left the pitch to a chorus of boos after a shocking first half, the then First Division Bairns having taken what seemed like an unassailable 3-0 lead. But the youngster’s goal just six minutes into the second half provided the impetus for Hibs to clinch a second consecutive Scottish Cup final, Leigh Griffiths’ goal in extra-time earning a stunning 4-3 victory.
Fast forward 12 months and Hibs fans are again looking for Harris to spark a resurgence – only this time it’s to keep them in Scotland’s top-flight.
With key post-split fixtures on the horizon against St Mirren in ten days’ time, followed by a home derby with city rivals Hearts, Harris says the pressure is growing within the squad to grind out results and rediscover some firepower that will ensure the Easter Road side don’t follow their Capital neighbours into next season’s Championship.
“There is obviously pressure because the fans are getting on our backs and rightly so because we’re not picking up results,” he explained. “But we know we can get ourselves out of trouble. I train with the players every day and there are good players here.
“It’s disappointing to hear the fans booing at the end of the games but we’ve not been playing well and we know that. We just need to accept we are in a relegation fight and grow up and make sure we aren’t there on the last day of the season.
“That was the key for the game against Aberdeen – to work hard as we were all disappointed about last weekend’s defeat to Hearts where we didn’t really turn up. James [Collins] came into the team with Heff [Paul Heffernan] getting injured on Monday in the warm-up and he did very well up front on his own, but we don’t really have that cutting edge in the final third.
“The manager was talking about the good positions we are finding ourselves in after Monday’s game and we’ve spoken about it the last few weeks. But it’s kind of been the same story where we’ve done well then can’t seem to do put the ball in the net.”
The Premiership takes a back seat this weekend as attention falls on the Scottish Cup semi-finals between Rangers and Dundee United on Saturday, and Aberdeen and St Johnstone the following afternoon. Following last year’s glorious fightback against Falkirk, Harris admits he’ll cast an envious eye over proceedings at Ibrox.
Harris, who started for Hibs as they exited this year’s competition in a 3-2 defeat by Raith in February, said: “We’d love to be in the semi-finals this weekend. I played in the Raith Rovers game in this season’s cup and it was hugely disappointing to go out and we deserved to. I watched the game on Sunday (Ramsdens Cup final) and I’ve got a couple of pals in Fraser Mullen and Callum Booth so it was great for them.
“It was my first goal for the club against Falkirk but, to be honest, it went so quickly, although the first half hour was probably the longest half an hour I’ve ever had! The second, though, was great to be part of and that’s the sort of resilience we need to show now and we maybe haven’t shown enough battling qualities recently than we did on that day.
“It was my first experience of Hampden so, as a young boy, I had nothing to lose. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career so far.”
That performance alone propelled the former Edinburgh Academy pupil into the limelight, Harris perceived as one of Scottish football’s brightest emerging talents. But, despite such an assured display in what was a successful end to his debut season as a first-team player, the 19-year-old has endured a difficult second season, having only recently returned from a five-month spell out after breaking his ankle during the opening day’s defeat to Motherwell last August.
Coupled with the departure of ex-boss Pat Fenlon in November, the man who afforded him a breakthrough into the team, Harris was only too aware the opportunity to showcase his skills to new manager Terry Butcher would have to wait.
Even when his time did arrive to be reintroduced into the first-team fray, as a late substitute against Aberdeen at Pittodrie in January, Harris, by his own admission, was far from content and was nowhere near the expectations he himself sets.
He said: “When he (Butcher) first came in at the end of last year, he spoke to me and I signed a new contract at the turn of the year. He said he wanted me to be a big player and to work day in day out at training and show my worth to the team. He’s made it clear his plans for me, so I just need to keep working on that.
“To be perfectly honest, I was disappointed myself when I came back from the injury.
“Playing for the Under-20s though the last few weeks has really helped me and I’ve got my confidence back and we are sitting top of the table, beating Hearts, Celtic. I love playing for James [McDonaugh], but the first team is where I want to be.
“At the moment, we can still be relegated through the play-off spot so we have to show we are fighting and not giving up.”