Callum Booth has found it hard to command as much playing time as he’d have liked on his return to Hibs, but he believes the going was always going to be tough when he’s battling Lewis Stevenson – in Booth’s estimation the Easter Road side’s player of the season so far – for a starting place.
The 23-year-old made a rare appearance as a second-half substitute in the 2-0 win over Alloa Athletic, his first since facing Livingston in mid-October and just his sixth of the season, a figure he had hoped would be much higher following his return to Easter Road after spending the previous two years out on loan.
But, as delighted as he was to get a run-out, the left-sided defender insisted he can have few complaints at having to settle for a seat on the bench most weeks when he takes into consideration not only recent results but the form of Stevenson who, other than a two-game ban imposed in the wake of the first Edinburgh derby of the season following his spat with Hearts winger Jamie Walker, has been an ever-present in boss Alan Stubbs’ plans.
He said: “Of course it is frustrating, you are training all week wanting to be playing on the Saturday. Every player wants to be playing in every game and I hadn’t got that chance for seven or eight weeks, which was disappointing.
“On the other hand, the boys have been playing well and have enjoyed a good run of results, which has delighted me. Lewis has also been doing brilliantly. So far, I would say he is our player of the season, and that obviously makes it difficult to get into the team ahead of him.
“All I can do is keep pushing him hard and keep him on his toes and be ready to step in if any of the back four are injured.
“But it was good to get a bit of the game on Saturday. It was only half-an-hour or so but I really enjoyed it, even more so as we won, which was the most important thing.”
Booth got his opportunity against Alloa as right back David Gray limped off with a groin injury which has been bothering him for a few weeks, Stevenson swapping flanks to make way for the former Scotland Under-21 internationalist, a deployment which Stubbs could well use from the start at Stark’s Park should the former Manchester United trainee fail to recover in time.
A starting place in Kirkcaldy would delight Booth, who spent last season playing for Raith – where he won the Ramsdens Cup at the expense of Rangers – having had the previous campaign at Livingston after falling out of the picture under ex-boss Pat Fenlon.
Booth, however, refused to take that for granted. He said: “It will be the first time I’ve been back to Stark’s Park. I still have some really good mates up there, close to half the team, so it will be good to see everyone, from the kit man to the manager.
“It would be nice to think I might get a start, but we will have to wait and see how Dave’s injury is. If he is okay, I am sure he will play.
“But Lewis went over to right-back when Dave came off at Ibrox earlier in the season and I came on to play on the left. So it’s something we’ve done before and Lewis looks just as comfortable on the other side.”
Raith fought back to claim a point at Easter Road earlier in the season with ex-Hearts striker Christian Nade claiming their goal and, although Grant Murray’s side have lost their last three Championship matches, Booth anticipates another difficult challenge. He said: “I thought a draw was probably a fair result last time.
“We edged the first half and they edged the second. It was a good game and I am expecting another tough match.”
That draw came early in an eight-match unbeaten run for Stubbs’ players, which was ended by Falkirk, only for Hibs to bounce back against Alloa with goals from Danny Handling and Dominique Malonga, their current form suggesting that after a slow start to the season they’ve got to grips with Championship football.
And against Alloa they also showed they’ve mastered how to break down teams intent on defending in depth, Stubbs having admitted his players had dominated most games at Easter Road while being unable to put away the opposition – a flaw which had resulted in too many damaging draws.
Booth said: “It was always going to be a difficult game when you saw them line-up 4-5-1. The gaffer has warned us there will be quite a lot of teams coming to Easter Road just to sit in.
“That’s what we expected and we knew we just had to be patient, to keep moving the ball and maintain a quick tempo to the game. We knew if we did that we had the players to break them down and once you score the opening goal they are then forced to come out a bit, which makes it a bit easier.”
However, it wasn’t until Malonga claimed his tenth goal of the season 17 minutes from time that Booth and his team-mates could breath a little more easily.
Booth said: “Whether it is 1-0 or 5-0 the most important thing is getting the three points. I think you could see we were trying to play attacking football, but at the same time you have to be sensible.
“Whoever you are playing a one-goal lead is always precarious, fans become a bit anxious as the game wears on so you have to use the head. We might have scored a couple more against Alloa, but when you are two goals up and the clock is running down you know the game is done and you must keep the ball.
“There’s no reason to go chasing a third goal and run the risk of losing one, which would make everyone nervous. It was a case of being professional and seeing the game out.
“It was vital we got back to winning ways, to prove the result at Falkirk was a blip. It’s one defeat in 11 league games, which is still a good run.
“I know it is an old cliché, but we’re taking each game as it comes. There hasn’t been much talk of having anyone in our sights.
“The games will be coming thick and fast over Christmas and we’ve got a couple of big ones with Rangers and Hearts, so it has to be one week at a time and we’ll see where that takes us.”