As Brian McLean said, in football everything can change in a heartbeat.
But even he couldn’t have been quite prepared for the sudden change of events which saw him finally make his debut for Hibs.
Signed on a short-term contract at the beginning of March to offer defensive cover, the 32-year-old had found himself restricted to an infrequent seat on the bench or outings with the club’s development squad.
Already facing the formidable challenge of forcing his way into boss Neil Lennon’s back four where Darren McGregor had established himself as an immovable rock, the earlier arrival on loan of Celtic defender Efe Ambrose, allied to the return from injury of Jordon Forster and then Paul Hanlon, appeared to have made that task all the more difficult.
However, the shoulder injury suffered by Forster following that reckless challenge by Morton’s Kudus Oyenuga last week saw McLean drafted into the squad for Saturday’s trip to East End Park, the former Motherwell, Falkirk, Preston North End, Dundee United and Ross County player’s name appearing on the team sheets distributed less than an hour before kick-off against Dunfermline as a substitute.
But, by the time the teams emerged from their respective dressing-rooms, McLean had replaced Hanlon in the starting line-up with teenager Fraser Murray taking his place on the bench.
It later transpired the nerve problem which had troubled Hanlon in the latter stages of a two-month absence, initially caused by a pelvic condition which ultimately required surgery, had flared up unexpectedly, forcing him again on to the sidelines.
Admitting he was a little surprised by the turn of events, McLean said: “That’s what the squad is there for – that’s why I was brought in.
“I heard about an hour before kick-off that Paul was struggling a little bit but that’s what I’ve been doing every week, waiting in the wings ready if I was called upon.
“My understanding on Saturday was that I was going to be on the bench. The team sheets were already out but football can change in a heartbeat. Hopefully, Paul will be okay, but I was delighted to get on the pitch.”
McLean’s last taste of competitive first-team action came in the sunnier climes of Singapore’s S League as he played for Brunei DPMM before returning to Scotland as a free agent, his last game on these shores a 2-0 defeat for Ross County by Hearts at Tynecastle almost two years ago.
However, he revealed forming yet another new partnership beside McGregor hadn’t presented too many problems.
He said: “We’re two experienced senior pros. In fact, we had a back four with a lot of games between us at a high level and all of that came into play in the second half when Dunfermline had a bit of pressure – we managed to ride it out.”
A debatable penalty from Kallum Higginbotham after Lewis Stevenson had been adjudged to have handled the ball by assistant referee Willie Ferguson allowed Allan Johnston’s side to cancel out John McGinn’s first-half opener, leaving Hibs to settle for a draw, their 12th in the Championship this season.
McLean said: “For me, it wasn’t a penalty. The less said about it the better, but the pace their boy hit it and where Lewis is standing, it’s not a penalty, but it was given.”
While Falkirk moved into second place thanks to a 1-0 win over Raith Rovers, the Bairns now nine points behind Hibs, their other title rivals Morton were beaten by Dumbarton to fall even further behind although, insisted McLean, the fact games are now beginning to quickly run out is almost as important a factor at this stage of the season.
He said: “It’s become quite a long, drawn-out affair. We want it wrapped up as quickly as possible but in football nothing is given to you on a plate. We have to make sure that on a Saturday, Wednesday night or whenever we are putting in the work and effort on the training ground.
“Football in general is full of frustrations, the highs and the lows and it is important you take the highs when they do come. It’s important we do get that high we want, promotion and, although we wanted the three points against Dunfermline, unfortunately we only got one although it’s one more than we had before the game.
“We all know our job is to get the three points and get over that line but, essentially, it’s getting closer and we have to make sure we get there and that’s another game gone. I was just delighted to get out there, to take part in the season and to make a contribution on some level to help get us over that line.”
Lennon voiced his frustration, not for the first time this season, at his players failing to take the chances they’d created, adamant that had striker Brian Graham put Hibs 2-0 up minutes into the second half the Capital club would have been travelling back across the Forth enjoying an even tighter grip on the title. And McLean agreed he and his team-mates have to capitalise when they can. He said: “We had a couple of chances we couldn’t get on the end of. That’s what the boys have been telling me and I’ve seen it myself in the past few weeks. There’s been great deliveries from Jason Cummings and James Keatings and we have to make sure we capitalise on that quality of delivery. There was one from Keats on Saturday which just eluded Jason and then Grant Holt before bouncing right up in front of me at the back post.
“You can’t say it was too good a ball, Keats has put it into a fantastic area and it’s up to us to get on the end of it.”
After the mayhem which descended upon the end of Hibs’ clash with Morton last week, the Edinburgh outfit travel to Cappielow for a quick-fire return fixture with Jim Duffy’s side.
While admitting it will be a “tasty” encounter given what happened – Morton’s Kudus Oyenuga flattening Forster with a reckless challenge before feigning a headbutt which saw McGregor as well as himself sent off while both Lennon and Duffy were also given their marching orders by referee Nick Walsh – McLean insisted: “We’ll be looking for cool heads and composure. It will be tasty – definitely – but one we are looking forward to and hopefully, although we have a large number of central defenders, I have given the manager a headache when it comes to team selection.”
Given games are rapidly running out for the chasing pack, avoiding defeat would appear to be a decent result for Hibs. But McLean insisted: “We want the prize so we want the three points.”