As Hibs stand on the brink of winning the Championship title, one of their players has chosen to thrust himself into a relegation battle in the same division in a bid to reignite his career.
With opportunities restricted at Easter Road after having the best part of two years written off by a couple of serious injuries to his right knee and stiff midfield competition, Danny Handling jumped at the chance to join struggling Raith Rovers on loan two weeks ago in search of the game time he craved.
Prior to his substitute outing for the Kirkcaldy side away to Falkirk a week past Saturday, Handling hadn’t appeared in a first-team game since a 12-minute cameo for Hibs in a 4-1 victory over Alloa Athletic in April 2015. His start in the Fife derby defeat at Dunfermline on Saturday was his first since a 3-0 win for Hibs over Dumbarton in February 2015. Underlining how long the wait had been, his team-mates that day 26 months ago included Keith Watson and Franck Dja Djedje.
A cruciate ligament injury, sustained in a pre-season friendly at Berwick Rangers in July 2015, effectively wrote off last season for Handling. Having worked his way back towards fitness in the closing months of last term, his hopes of a fresh start this season were dashed when he tore his cartilage in the same knee the day after the home Europa League qualifier against Brondby last July. Cue another lengthy lay-off for the homegrown midfielder. Although he returned to training at the end of January, Handling, understandably short of match fitness and sharpness, struggled to force his way into the plans of Neil Lennon. When John Hughes asked him to join Rovers on an emergency loan until the end of the season, the 23-year-old felt the time was right.
“When I found out Raith were interested, I was more than happy to go because I wanted games and I’m not sure I’d have got that at Hibs the way things were going,” Handling told the Evening News. “I’ve been back training for a while but I wasn’t getting the game time that I needed so I felt the best move for me was to try and get out on loan. It was looking like I wasn’t going to play this season, so the opportunity to go out and get games was one I couldn’t refuse. Neil Lennon was really supportive. He’s been understanding of my position. I’m in an awkward situation because I’ve been out for two years and Hibs are going for a league title and a Scottish Cup. I can totally understand why he didn’t want to put me in. He’s never really seen me play and he’s probably not sure how fit I actually am, so he wouldn’t have known what to expect from me.”
Handling’s frustration in recent months has been similar to that which he encountered a year ago. After becoming injury-free towards the end of last season, he was unable to get himself any game time under Alan Stubbs as Hibs chased success in the Championship and both domestic cups. It meant he had no way of rediscovering some much-needed match sharpness as a result. A similar Catch 22 situation arose under Lennon in the past couple of months.
“It starts to play on your mind a bit when you’ve not played for two years,” he said. “No disrespect to the previous manager [Stubbs] but there were times when I felt I could have got on at the end of last season and he opted for other people instead. That’s fair enough – you’ve got to respect the manager’s decision. Having missed such a big chunk of the season, he obviously felt I wasn’t ready to play. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t get enough opportunities to get back on the pitch.
“This season it’s probably been even more frustrating because I’ve been back training for two or three months now but my fitness and sharpness have been a bit of an issue because I’ve been out for so long. The best way to get that back is with game time. I’d been playing for the under-20s but the standard’s not the same as first team. I had to get out on loan.”
Handling has been with Hibs his entire career apart from a two-month loan stint at Berwick Rangers five years ago. The prospect of leaving his comfort zone to join another full-time club – even on a temporary basis – was a daunting one. “That was the fear at first, if I’m honest,” said Handling. “I’ve always wondered how I would cope if I left Hibs, but I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I’ve been training full-time with Raith and even though it’s only been a short time, it’s been really enjoyable. It’s not what I expected it would be like – It’s been a lot better. The boys have been brilliant with me. There are a few boys in the team I knew before I came here. I was obviously close to [former Hibs midfielder] Scott Robertson and I also knew Ross Callachan, Lewis Vaughan and Declan McManus.”
Handling, a ball-playing midfielder, knows he is likely to find himself involved in the dirtier side of the game as Raith scrap for their Championship lives in the remaining four games of the season. After a dire run of form since October, the Kirkcaldy side sit second bottom and in grave danger of slipping into the third tier. “The bottom part of the league is really tight,” said Handling. “It’s all about the three points for every team.”
As for his own situation, Handling is philosophical. He is hopeful that his injury problems are now fully behind him and he can work his way back to a level that allows him to compete for a place in a strong midfield at Hibs, where he remains contracted until summer 2018. “The injuries have been unfortunate but I’m not the type of person to get too down about things like this,” he said. “Until these two, I’d never really had any serious injury problems. It’s just been a really unlucky two years and I’m hoping that’s it over now. The knee feels good. It gets a bit stiff sometimes after training or games, but I can cope with that. It’s really strong and hopefully it stays that way.
“The aim now is to get some game time at Raith, enjoy my football again, get a good pre-season under my belt and then hopefully start my career at Hibs again. I still believe I can do a job at Hibs, but I need to prove myself at the required level first. It’ll help if I can stay fit through pre-season but I believe 100 per cent in my own ability.”