For most Hibs players, Sunday’s League Cup final against Ross County marked the end of a dream. In Danny Handling’s case, however, it represented the end of a nightmare.
The 22-year-old suffered a pre-season hammer blow when he was struck down by a cruciate ligament injury in a friendly away to Berwick Rangers in mid July. Eight months on, he returned to the matchday squad for the first time after Alan Stubbs named him as a surprise substitute for Sunday’s final.
Although he didn’t get the chance to go on and help prevent his team losing the silverware to County, Handling was entitled to a degree of personal satisfaction at having completed the long journey back from one of the worst injuries a professional footballer can ever suffer. “It was a surprise to be involved,” he told the Evening News. “You don’t expect to come straight into the squad for a cup final after a long-term injury. I’d only been training properly for a week so it was a special feeling to be named on the bench.”
Handling first got an inclination he might be involved on Sunday when he was included in the squad that travelled to Spain last week for a pre-cup final training camp. The Hibs academy graduate noted that no Under-20 players had made the trip to the Costa del Sol and, with fellow midfielders Fraser Fyvie, Dan Carmichael and Dylan McGeouch all struggling with injury, he sensed that Alan Stubbs might have been pondering pitching him into the squad.
“I trained with the Under-20s two weeks ago and then I trained the full week in Spain and then trained on Friday and Saturday before the game,” he said. “There were no other Under-20 players involved in the lead-up to the game and I realised that we only had 18 fully-fit players training last week and I was one of them, so I had a rough idea then that I might be in the squad.”
Handling knows he still has some way to go before he rediscovers full match fitness, but he is relieved to have seen his hard rehabilitation work over the past eight months bring him back into contention.
“This has been the hardest part of my career, 100 per cent,” he said, with regard to his lay-off. “I’d never had a bad injury in my life before, so to get a cruciate injury right at the start of the season was hard to take. Thankfully I’ve come through it. I’ve worked my socks off to get to this point and I think that’s why I was able to be involved on Sunday.
“I’ve been working really hard with Paul Green, the fitness coach, and doing extra stuff with Taff [assistant coach, Andy Holden], so that’s been helping me. I did the bleep test a couple of weeks ago and it was looking pretty good, so I was happy with that.
“It’s been a really difficult season for me but to finally be back and involved in a cup final at Hampden is a great feeling. I just need to keep working to get my fitness back and get into peak condition and hopefully start playing regularly again.”
Handling will hope to continue his fightback by playing a part in tomorrow’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The midfielder is eager to get back into the thick of it and start banishing any concerns about how his knee might hold up in the heat of battle.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time just now but if I could be involved against Inverness, that would be great,” he said. “The knee feels ok just now. You’re always a bit wary about what it might be like when you do certain things but I’m getting more confident each time I train and each time I kick a ball. I’m not thinking about it quite as much as I was before and sometimes I even forget about the injury. I’ve just got to keep the head down and concentrate on playing, and any doubts I’ve got should go away.”
Handling was gutted that his return to the squad coincided with his team’s most demoralising day of the season so far as Alex Schalk’s last-minute goal earned County a 2-1 win at Hampden on Sunday. “The boys were really deflated afterwards,” he said. “I think we all felt the better team lost on the day. Ross County were a threat at times but we were by far the better team. It just wasn’t to be our day.”