This time last year Ross Laidlaw was standing at a crossroads in his career.
Having just recovered from a freak injury – a torn kidney sustained in a training ground accident with then Raith Rovers team-mate Ross Callachan, – the 6ft 5in in goalkeeper didn’t know what his next step would be.
But even he couldn’t quite believe it when Hibs made a surprise move to snap him up on a one-year deal with the clear proviso he’d be acting as understudy following the imminent arrival of Israeli internationalist Ofir Marciano.
Today, though, the 24-year-old admitted he’d “landed on his feet” having enjoyed his best season yet, making more appearances than he expected in helping the Easter Road side clinch the Championship title with games to spare and with it a long-awaited return to the top flight.
Even now, however, he admits he has to pinch himself as he remembers how he went from playing League Two football on loan at Elgin City to making a shock debut for Hibs in the Europa League.
A goal down from the first leg in Edinburgh thanks to a horrific mistake from Finnish Under-21 keeper Otso Virtanen, Hibs boss Neil Lennon turned to Laidlaw for the return match in Copenhagen – and his faith was repaid as he watched him pull off a string of impressive saves as the Capital side stunned the Danes with a goal from skipper David Gray, only to exit the competition in a penalty shoot-out.
Incredibly, Laidlaw’s last appearance had come some 16 months previously, a 5-4 defeat by Annan Athletic at Borough Briggs, a far cry from the 28,000 capacity Brondby Stadium on the western outskirts of the Danish capital.
“It was brilliant to make my debut for a club like Hibs,” he recalled, “but to do it in the Europa League made it even better. Unfortunately we went out on penalties, but it is one I’ll always remember. I think that night was the highlight of my season, although there have been plenty of great moments.
“I wasn’t expecting to play that night but just before the game the gaffer asked if I felt okay as I hadn’t played for so long. I thought I played well and the rest has been a bonus since.”
Even to just be playing again was a relief for Laidlaw following that injury which had left him in intensive care, his ruptured kidney having been glued back together, out of the game for six months and with a question as to whether he’d be fit enough to make a comeback.
But, in fact, his appearance against Ayr United at the weekend was his 18th of the season, a figure which encompasses all competitions, while between them Laidlaw and Marciano have clocked up a remarkable 19 clean sheets.
“After what had happened to be back fit and playing again meant any game was a bonus,” he said.
“I didn’t know where I was going to be last summer. I was speaking to Raith but the next thing Hibs came along. I couldn’t believe it, I’ve really landed on my feet having come here.
“I’ve worked hard with our goalkeeping coach Alan Combe and the manager and, I feel, taken my chances when they’ve come along.
“Ofir has been great, but I think the two of us have played well. However, when you are competing with an Israeli internationalist it’s not easy to get into the team every week.”
Laidlaw has proved to be more than an able deputy to Marciano, who has impressed during his season-long loan spell from Israeli club Ashdod, so much so that Lennon is hoping he’ll be back at Easter Road after the summer.
And as Lennon has rotated his squad following the title being clinched, he’s featured in the last two matches, helping Hibs to their first win of the season over his old club Raith and then denying League One bound Ayr even a consolation goal at Somerset Park with sharp saves from Darryll Meggat and Gary Harkins.
He said: “Clean sheets are what you want as a goalkeeper, so to get one having lost two goals against Raith was good.
“I’d love to play again on Saturday against St Mirren when we lift the trophy but that’s up to the manager. I’ll just have to wait and see.”
Laidlaw is poised to sign a new two-year deal with Hibs in the coming days, paving the way for him to play Premiership football for the first time, an experience he admits he’s already relishing.
He said: “We seemed to be waiting forever to take the title, every time we dropped points the other teams did the same. We weren’t able to get that gap to win but we were delighted to finally manage it. I think we’ve been the best team by far, we’ve been the most consistent and we deserve to go up.”
And Laidlaw has no doubts Hibs have what it takes to compete in the upper half of the Premiership. Pointing to how Lennon’s side pushed Aberdeen all the way in the Scottish Cup semi-final, he said: “We showed we can compete and speaking to the boys they’ve been saying they had a very good record against Premiership clubs last season.
“Even losing to Aberdeen was still a positive, I believe, and playing against better teams will probably make it a bit easier for us rather than having sides come to Easter Road and sit in. Games should be more open and exciting for the fans.
“Hibs are one of the top three or four clubs in the country and going to places like Celtic Park and Ibrox, playing big games in front of big crowds is what you want to do as a football player.”