Danny Handling has eyes on a starring role

Danny Handling is closed down by Ross County's Richard Brittain. Di Caprio, below
Danny Handling is closed down by Ross County's Richard Brittain. Di Caprio, below
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Terry Butcher reckons Danny Handling has the looks for Hollywood, dubbing the Hibs kid “Leo” after film star Leonardo Di Caprio as he contends with having three “Daniels” in his squad.

Daniel Boateng is straight-forward enough, he’s Daniel. Then there’s Danny Hayes, again simple, he’s Danny. But to ensure there’s no doubt as to who he means when it comes to the boy from Haddington, the Hibs boss has come up with the nickname given Handling’s tousled hair and, of late, goatee beard.

Joking that he feels like his former manager Sir Bobby Robson who famously struggled to remember players’ names, Butcher said: “It’s a nightmare having three Dannys so I call him Leo because he reminds me of Leonardo Di Caprio.”

It may raise a few laughs, but as far as Handling is concerned there’s no offence taken, insisting it is team-mate Jordon Forster who feels slighted, believing he’s the one in the dressing-room with the film star looks.

The 19-year-old said: “There’s Daniel, Danny and me, Leo. It’s a bit of a compliment, I don’t mind. Jordon hates it because he thinks he is the best looking guy but I think the gaffer feels I’ve got the Hollywood look.”

Banter it may be, but Handling has eyes only on one starring role rather than the many his alter ego has enjoyed, namely starring in a Hibs jersey having been cast in a supporting role over the past few months.

At the top of the billing when Butcher first arrived in Edinburgh, Handling found his star on the wane, unable to command the lead role, reduced to a few cameo appearances before work appeared to have dried up altogether as he was left among the audience as others took centre stage.

Sitting high in the stand at Easter Road alongside team-mates Kevin Thomson and Owain Tudur Jones as Hibs exited stage left from the Scottish Cup, humbled by Championship outfit Raith Rovers was, Handling admitted, one of the toughest experiences he’d endured, the first time he’d been dropped entirely from Butcher’s squad.

He said: “I played in the first four games under the gaffer, scored his first goal when we knocked Ross County out of the cup and everything seemed to be going well; I was delighted. But then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t in the team, I was coming off the bench but getting less and less game time until I wasn’t in the squad at all for the Raith game.

“Things had gone the wrong way and I was gutted. I don’t like watching when I’m not playing and obviously the result against Raith was a hard one for us all to take. Rather than sitting in the stand you want to be out there proving to everyone you are good enough.”

Given the way the previous few weeks had gone there was no-one more surprised than Handling when he was pulled aside to be told he’d be in the starting XI, coincidentally against Ross County, believing that although he’d scored twice in the “mini derby” as Hibs had beaten Hearts 3-2 a few days earlier, he hadn’t done enough to impress either Butcher or his assistant Maurice Malpas who had been watching.

He said: “I didn’t think they’d been too happy with my performance but I heard whispers in the changing-room last Friday that I’d be playing the next day. Paul Hanlon, Danny Haynes and Paul Cairney all mentioned to me that I was going to be starting but I didn’t pay it too much attention.

“But after the training session the gaffer pulled me aside and asked if I’d be surprised to hear I would be playing. Sam Stanton was being moved back into midfield and my position off the front was available. Sam had done really well against both Celtic and Raith in our previous games in the position I like to play but while I was disappointed to be out the side I was really happy for him because I’ve known him for a long time he is a close friend in football.

“Naturally I was delighted to discover I’d be playing as it my last start had been two months ago, away to Celtic.”

Handling was even happier when, his spirits having already been lifted by a 2-1 victory which ended a run of five winless matches for Hibs, Butcher’s glowing appraisal of his efforts was brought to his attention.

He said: “I felt I had done well, I thought my hold up play and linking were good but it was only later friends, family and team-mates told me the gaffer had been very complimentary which, of course, I was delighted to hear.”

Two goals up through Stanton and Tom Taiwo, Handling was presented with a great opportunity to make it 3-0 for Hibs with less than an hour on the clock when a pass from Alex Harris left him with only County goalkeeper Mark Brown to beat, but his shot was saved by his former team-mate, the Staggies taking full advantage to haul themselves back into the match with a stunning free-kick from captain Richie Brittain. Handling admitted he was disappointed but claimed he’d played a part, albeit a small one, in setting up Taiwo’s strike, Haynes having taken the ball to the bye-line before cutting it back in his direction.

He said: “The ball just missed me, I’d gone in a split-second too soon but it did hit my studs and then sat up nicely for Tom.

“I was disappointed not to take that chance later on. I wouldn’t say I was rusty given I’d scored twice for the Under-20s against Hearts but I was tiring a bit having not played first-team football for so long. Even so, there were no excuses, I should have scored.

“It could have been 3-0 but it went to 2-1 – that’s what happens in football.

“However, we came away with the three points, it was a good win which has all the boys buzzing again. Training has been good again this week, we’ve taken another step towards the top-six place we want to get.”