Faced with another weekend of inaction, Steven Whittaker managed to get his hands on a couple of tickets for Scotland’s Calcutta Cup match with England at BT Murrayfield.
But it looked liked he would have to abandon his plans when Hibs boss Neil Lennon called him into the squad for the lunchtime trip to Kilmarnock only hours after insisting the defender, out of action for three months as he battled a pelvic injury, had no chance of playing on Rugby Park’s artificial surface.
Lennon was forced into a rethink after central defender Paul Hanlon’s wife went into labour. Whittaker said: “It was a bit of a last-minute decision. The gaffer asked me how I was feeling and I said I was fine.
“He then said he’d like me to travel with the squad, to be about the bench and maybe get on. I was happy to do that, to be back in the squad and travelling with the boys as it had been such a long time.”
Whittaker, though, was determined not to let his son Hayden down having promised to take him to the rugby and, having made a late appearance as a substitute in the 2-2 draw in Ayrshire, he dashed back to Edinburgh to pick up the five-year-old, the pair making it to Murrayfield just in time for the national anthems.
He said: “Again it was a bit last minute. I’d only managed to get the tickets for the Scotland game on the Friday only to be called into the squad.
“I tried to work out the timings with our game kicking off at lunchtime and thought if I got back sharp I might just make it. Even if I was late back, I’d decided we’d get what we could of the game even if we missed the first 20 minutes or so.
“I have to admit I don’t keep up with rugby but we can see Murrayfield in the distance from my front door in Colinton and going to watch the national side was something I’ve always wanted to do, a spectacle to go and see and to soak up the atmosphere.
“I didn’t want to let Hayden down so I told him we’d go whenever I got back from Kilmarnock. Luckily, everything went smoothly, I got a quick lift and I was able to get home, pick up Hayden, who was waiting with his flags on his cheeks, and get there just in time for the anthems.”
Whittaker, who twice suffered defeat by England during his 31 games for Scotland, admitted he couldn’t have chosen a better match for his first introduction to rugby, watching Hibs fan Stuart Hogg, a regular at Easter Road, and his team-mates storming to a 25-13 win as they defeated the Auld Enemy for the first time in a decade.
He said: “I certainly picked the right one for our first rugby match, the team was fantastic. I understand a little bit about rugby but they show you on the big screen what every decision is for, so you learn a bit more as you go along.
“Hayden enjoyed the day, he loved the atmosphere and it was nice for me to spend some time with him rather than at the football. With me having been out injured, I’ve had him to the Hibs games so it’s good to take in another sport and see what goes on in it.”
Watching Scotland enjoy such an emphatic win wrapped up a good day all round for Whittaker, who can now see light at the end of the tunnel with, hopefully, his injury now something of the past.
He said: “It was a horrible injury, basically my core, my stomach was in bits. Any time I tried to accelerate, swing my leg or kick the ball my core couldn’t handle it, the muscles weren’t kicking in properly. I had an injection at one point but that just masked the problem for a little bit and I just had to start from scratch, from doing sit-ups to different core exercises to the point I was pain-free.
“Some days I felt good but the physios had to hold me back because when I was feeling good I’d do more but then feel sore for a few days, setting my self back. It was frustrating because I wanted to push but it wasn’t in my interest to do so, it was sometimes two steps forward and one back.
“Having to go through rehab can become tedious and play with your mind, knowing what lies ahead of you every day you head for the training centre. It’s about getting through it, putting in the work to get back fit as soon as possible. I’m not the only one who’s had to do that, David Gray has injured his Achilles and other boys are constantly maintaining themselves as they go along.”
Whittaker watched all but five minutes from the bench at Rugby Park as Killie mounted a stirring fightback from having lost two goals in the opening nine minutes as they left Hibs holding on for a draw.
However, while conceding there will be those who will criticise Hibs for surrendering that lead, Whittaker insisted no-one should forget Killie’s recent record, including the seven straight wins they’d enjoyed at home before the events of the weekend.
He said: “It was a strange game, going 2-0 up so early we got caught a wee bit between protecting the lead or going for more goals. We didn’t manage the game well, we could have helped ourselves with our decision making. But we’ve looked at it and we’ll learn from it.”