Amid the darkening gloom of despair which enveloped Easter Road as Hibs’ Championship title hopes were dealt a massive blow by that shock defeat by Morton in midweek was one ray of sunshine – the surprise appearance of striker Farid El Alagui.
Head coach Alan Stubbs caught everyone by unaware by naming the French-Moroccan among his substitutes, the 31-year-old having become almost the forgotten man of Easter Road.
Fate played a cruel hand as he ruptured his achilles tendon only weeks after signing for the Capital club in 2014, El Alagui has faced a long battle to regain full fitness despite undergoing a revolutionary operation on the injury.
It was a long eight months before he was seen again in green and white, returning for the final few weeks of last season, the highlight of which was claiming the second goal which clinched victory over derby rivals Hearts.
Those sightings only served to whet the fans’ appetite as they recalled how his first five games for the club had yielded four goals.
A minor knee operation at the end of the campaign was regarded as nothing more than routine but as this season got underway the forward began to feel pain from two screws inserted as part of the surgery on his achilles and the decision was taken to have them removed.
All seemed well as El Alagui made his comeback second time around, a fleeting appearance in the League Cup win over Dundee United in early November, followed by a longer stretch, again as a substitute, at the end of that month against Alloa Athletic at the Indodrill Stadium, scene of his horror injury. Since then, though, nothing. Other than a few outings with Hibs development squad El Alagui had dropped off the radar, leading many to wonder if the former Falkirk and Brentford player’s career was actually over.
So it came as something of a shock to see his name on the team sheet although his introduction to the action was somewhat muted as he replaced Anthony Stokes; Hibs three down at that point with only 16 minutes remaining and faced with a defeat which leaves them trailing table-topping Rangers by eight points and with only 11 games to play.
As such it was a bittersweet moment for El Alagui who admitted: “Ideally I would have been coming on with us two or three goals up but being three down it was more difficult. All you could hope for was a quick goal to try to create some momentum but we didn’t manage that.”
What made the defeat even harder to take was the fact it was Hibs’ first at home in the league since last April last year and only their second in 29 matches this season but, insisted El Alagui, he and his team-mates can’t afford to feel sorry for themselves as they are still very much competing on three fronts.
The Championship title may be all the more difficult to attain but promotion is still very much the target while a place in the League Cup final has already been booked while Stubbs’ players also retain the hope that they can advance to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
After all these months of frustration, El Alagui, naturally, is determined to do all he can to play his part in what still promises to be a dramatic finale to the season.
He said: “We have to go again, starting with tomorrow’s match at Dumbarton.
“We were always going to lose at some point but unfortunately it has happened at this time which is not ideal.
“We had the chance to cut Rangers’ advantage to five points but, just like Livingston a couple of weeks ago, we let that opportunity slip.
“Obviously we have made it harder for ourselves, but no-one is giving up. We still have Rangers to play at home and before then they might drop some points but, it has to be admitted, we have to keep winning.”
Although Morton fully deserved their win in the end, El Alagui admitted Hibs were left bemoaning the goal-scoring opportunities they had scorned before Jim Duffy’s side went ahead.
The most glaring of those was a close-range header which top scorer Jason Cummings sent wide with the goal at his mercy.
But El Alagui says no-one should be pointing the finger at the 20-year-old.
“We had some chances first half and had we got ourselves ahead I think it would have been a different story.
“Only Jason will know how he managed to miss that one but these things happen – know because it’s happened to me in the past.
“No-one should blame Jason because he has been outstanding for us this season.”
Insisting Hibs shouldn’t be written off on the basis of one result, El Alagui revealed he hopes to play his part, if a bit belated, in a memorable end to the season.
He said: “It was probably only natural for people to wonder if I would be back because I haven’t been involved much this season.
“I had a niggle in my calf in December which put me back five weeks. Before then I was feeling good but I have gone through some more rehabilitation and, to be honest, I haven’t felt as good as I do for some time.
“I’m really pleased with where I am.
“We’ve got a lot of big games coming up and I want to play as much as I can to help the team.
“It’s an exciting time, the defeat by Morton was disappointing but it’s over and we have to concentrate on the next 11 games and also look to do well in the two cups.
“I’m ready, I want to play as big a part as I can. I’m really hungry if I can put it that way.”