His time at Easter Road is rapidly coming to an end but Brandon Barker is determined to leave on a high.
Fearing a badly torn hamstring had brought his season to a premature end in February, the on-loan Manchester City winger has timed his return to action with Hibs’ final five post-split matches, victories over Celtic and Kilmarnock in the first two of them keeping Neil Lennon’s side very much in the fight for second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
It was Barker’s last-gasp goal which finally secured the points against Killie, clinching a 5-3 win in what was a game described as “a humdinger” by Lennon, a result which ended the Rugby Park outfit’s hopes of overhauling the Capital club, leaving him and his team-mates to focus solely on the forthcoming battle with Aberdeen and Rangers.
Barker admitted the injury was a huge blow, coming just seven minutes into what turned out to be a second win of the season against Rangers at Ibrox and only three days after he’d scored his first goal for Hibs – what proved to be the winner over Motherwell.
“My first thought was my season was over,” he recalled. “I knew straight away, it was painful. I think I strained it three times in three seconds.
“I got a scan three days after I did it and it looked horrific. I was pushing for a second opinion and thankfully a second scan came back and said it was going to be a good healer.
“I’d been out for three weeks before the Hearts game away and then played five games in quick succession. I think it’s just the player I am, I just have to focus on getting my hamstrings really strong.
“But it was very tough mentally watching the boys for three months even though they were doing tremendously well. It was hard not feeling part of that but I’m back now to help the boys get over the finish line and push for second place.”
Barker, who is 21, had to return to parent cub Manchester City to allow the English champions’ medical team to assess his injury but, he insisted, he was delighted to be able to return to Edinburgh and conclude his rehabilitation programme at East Mains.
He said: “I went back to City for a month and they sorted out the first stage of my rehab but the last two months has been back at Hibs. Nathan Ring [Hibs’ head of football medicine and science] and his team did a great job in getting me into top physical condition to give me a chance of playing in these games.
“It was horrible to sit and watch when I was out, but the good thing was the boys continued to grind out the results playing some unbelievable football. I’m just happy to be part of it again, to be in the race we are in.”
Barker made his return in what was regarded as a surprise win over Celtic, forcing the champions-elect to delay their title party, but beating Kilmarnock was possibly an even more important result.
He said: “To be honest, I didn’t feel rusty at all. I thought I would have, but it felt as if I’d never been away – the physios have done a great job on me.
“We deserved to win against Celtic because we were the better team. Most people probably thought we’d be beaten but we didn’t go into the game with that mentality. We probably put a spanner in the works winning that one, but we go out every week looking to win.
“The Killie game was more difficult. The gaffer told us if we didn’t win the Celtic result would mean nothing which was true because they were chasing us but they are now out of the picture which is great as far as we are concerned.”
Lennon’s players, however, were forced to fight all the way as Kilmarnock twice levelled following goals from Scott Allan and Steven Whittaker and, even after Jamie Maclaren and Flo Kamberi had pushed Hibs two goals clear, they came back again to make the scoreline 4-3 and so ensure a nervous finale for the home support.
Barker allowed them to breathe more easily, though, as he took Danny Swanson’s pass, cut past a defender and drilled it low beyond goalkeeper Leo Fasan. He said: “It was a crazy game, great entertainment for the fans. At 4-3 it could have gone either way. They had a goal ruled out for offside but there was no better time to finish it than with only two minutes left.
“They had to win to have any chance of finishing fourth but, while we are now safe in that position, we want more. Saturday is probably now our biggest game of the season, the mood would have been dampened a bit had we not beaten Killie but now we go there full of confidence.”
The last Edinburgh derby of the season against Hearts at Tynecastle and a visit from Rangers which could still decide second place depending on results in the interim, will give Barker’s career in green and white a fitting finale, the player admitting he’ll take his leave with more than a touch of sadness in his heart.
He said: “I had a bad year last year for confidence, happiness and just playing football but this year, even although I’ve had time out, I’ve played a lot of games, put in good performances and enjoyed my football.
“There’s no better place than here, I’ve loved it and the boys I’ve met are great and it’s a bit sad my time with Hibs is coming to an end.”
Barker will return to the Etihad Stadium with two years still remaining on his contract with Manchester City and it will be up to them as to what his immediate future will be, although he admitted he wouldn’t be adverse to another season with Hibs.
He said: “City are happy with how things are going and we’ll have to wait to the summer to see what’s going to happen and, as an MCFC player, I respect what they want to do with me.
“I’d love to come back, this is a great club with a great team and what we have done this year has been phenomenal and now we have three more games to wrap it up.”
Given that Lennon attempted to sign Barker when he was in charge of Bolton Wanderers, it is clear the Hibs boss rates the youngster highly, leading to the question of how the payer might react if he pushed for him to return to the Capital. “If he did it would mean I’ve done a decent job here,” he said.
“I’ve got a great relationship with the manager, he has been top-class with me even when I’ve been injured and has had the trust to throw me straight back in.
“I can’t thank him enough. He’s given me happiness in football again. I love the way he is, with me and the boys, he’s got us playing the way we have been playing and grinding out results when we’ve needed to.”
“I’ll trust City to make the right decision for me but for the moment I still have business here, these last three games.”