It had been quite a while since Jordon Forster had felt those butterflies in his stomach, but as he stood on the touchline in the Brondby Stadion, preparing to replace Marvin Bartley he was suddenly hit by the jitters.
Given it was to be the first time in a year he’d pulled on a green and white jersey and was being thrust into a finely balanced Europa League tie for the final 15 minutes or so of extra-time, it’s little surprise the big defender felt a touch nervous.
But, he insisted, it was also an indication of just how much the Easter Road club meant to him, having come close to heading for the exit door as his contract ran down, the second half of last season having been spent on loan at English League Two side Plymouth Argyle after he’d been unable to force his way into then boss Alan Stubbs’ thoughts.
In fact, he made only one appearance for the Capital outfit last season, his participation in the opening game, a 6-2 defeat by Rangers in the Petrofac Cup, brought to a premature end by a hamstring injury. By the time he was ready to push for his place again Stubbs’ side had emabarked on a run which ultimately saw them lose just once in 28 outings, a record which gave him little cause to bang on the head coach’s door to demand an explantion for his exclusion.
Moving to the south coast of England provided Forster with the first team action he craved. Despite suffering a suspected broken jaw early om with the Pilgrims, his time there ended with an appearance at Wembley for the League Two play-off which Plymouth lost to AFC Wimbledon.
Forster had made his temporary departure from Easter Road in the knowledge a new contract was on the table. But, he admitted, he feared his exit may have become permanent, balancing his desire to remain a Hibs player with his need, at the age of 22, to be playing.
The arrival of new boss Neil Lennon and the head coach’s assurances resulted in Forster signing a two-year deal, paving the way for that appearance in Copenhagen and, finally, a long-waited appearance again at Easter Road in Sunday’s 1-0 friendly win over English Championship club Birmingham City.
He said: “I felt really good. It had been a long time since I ran out at Easter Road and I told a few of the boys before the game how much I was looking forward to it.
“Three or four months ago I would probably have told you I would never play for Hibs again, but in football a day is a long time, let along a few months. Things can turn around so quickly. The new manager has come in and been really positive with me, as he has with the rest of the squad and I think I’ve shown him I have a lot to offer.”
As someone who made his Hibs debut as a 19-year-old in an Edinburgh derby win at Tynecastle before playing in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic a few days later, Forster admits to being someone who doesn’t normally get uptight, hence his revelation at feeling a touch edgy as he took to the pitch against Brondby as being “a bit weird”. He said: “I was speaking to my family and a few of the boys and I told them coming on at Brondby I was more nervous than playing in the play-off final at Wembley. I think that has a lot to do with how much the club, the supporters and the boys in the dressing room mean to me.
“I had my debut at Tynecastle and a few days later the cup final against Celtic. It was a similar feeling to that. I’m really not that nervous a guy, so it was a weird feeling.
“Parks [Lennon’s assistant Garry Parker] told me ten minutes before I came on that I should be ready. It was the first time I had felt those buterflies for a really long time. I went on, tried to keep things simple as going on at that stage of the game as a defender you can only be the villain.”
Thankfully no such fate befell Forster. Skipper David Gray’s earlier header, which had drawn the sides level on aggregate, remained the only goal in 120 minutes of football and the tie progressed to a penalty shoot-out which unfortunately Hibs lost, missing out on a trip to face Hertha Berlin in the third qualifying round this week.
Forster said: “It was great coming on in a game of that stature and, although going out was disappointing, it was a really positive performance. All the boys would have loved the chance to play against a big, big side in the next round – but we can take a lot of confidence.”
The toll those exertions in Copenhagen had taken, both physically and mentally, on his players led to Lennon making ten changes for the visit of Birmingham City, offering Forster the chance he once feared he’d never enjoy again of running out at Easter Road.
Only Liam Fontaine retained his place in what was very much a second-string side with youngsters Callum Crane, Scott Martin and Aaron Dunsmore all being given a run in what became a highly pleasing afternoon for Lennon as Hibse ended up 1-0 winners.
Forster said: “Some of the boys got a couple of days off to relax and get the legs back so it was a chance for the young boys to go and prove themselves. I thought they were really good, we never looked in any discomfort and we could have scored another two or three goals. A lot of the boys have given the manager a lot to think about.”