Irn-Bru Cup has put fizz back into Danny Handling’s career

Danny Handling leapfrogs former Hibs team-mate Tom Taiwo
Danny Handling leapfrogs former Hibs team-mate Tom Taiwo
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He’s played in the Scottish Cup final and been on the bench for the League Cup equivalent, but former Hibs midfielder Danny Handling insists winning the Irn-Bru Cup would be the highlight of his career – so far.

Still just 24, Handling has been blighted by serious knee injuries for the past two-and-a-half years, resulting in him quitting Easter Road for Championship outfit Dumbarton.

But he hopes by taking a step backwards he can begin to realise the potential which propelled him to become the fourth youngest Hibs player ever when he enjoyed his debut against Aberdeen seven years ago. And the chance to win a trophy in what will be Dumbarton’s first national final for 127 years when they face Inverness Caley at McDiarmid Park on Saturday excites him just as much as his days in the green and white.

He said: “It’s a great achievement for everyone involved at Dumbarton. It’s a great opportunity for the club.

“I played in the Scottish Cup final when Hibs were beaten by Celtic in 2013 and I was on the bench when Ross County won the League Cup in the last minute in 2016.

“I was actually in the squad for the Scottish Cup win that year but I didn’t make the bench. So Saturday is a chance for me. It doesn’t matter what cup it is, a final is a final.”

The fact Handling again found himself facing another lengthy spell on the sidelines after picking up yet another knee injury in his first game for Dumbarton will, he admitted, make the moment all the better.

He said: “I’ve now had three big operations and one minor one. I’d moved to Dumbarton because, although there was interest elsewhere there was nothing concrete.

“Dumbarton wanted me to play, the manager Stevie Aitken is a top guy and what he has done in keeping the club in the Championship is testament to how good he is.

“When I heard of their interest I called Sam Stanton – who had been on loan with them from Hibs last season – and he told me it’s a great club and that the manager and his assistant Ian Durrant are brilliant with the players.

“The only downside is it’s part-time and, being from Haddington, I am on the other side of the country.

“But I just wanted to get myself up and running again but it was unfortunate I picked up that injury straight away. Being part-time, Dumbarton can’t afford the luxuries of clubs like Hibs, Celtic, Rangers and Hearts. I knew there was something wrong so I paid for a scan myself.”

Dumbarton picked up the bill for the operation that was needed but he was out of action for four months, tentatively returning with a series of appearances as a substitute before being pitched in against Welsh champions The New Saints in the semi-final of the Irn-Bru Cup. Handling recalled: “I wasn’t sure if I was going to play or not. We were being cautious because we didn’t know if playing on the astroturf would be good for me.”

Play he did, a decision which was rewarded with a stunning goal, his first for Dumbarton and his first in three years as he pulled the Sons level on the night before Dimitris Foxylias claimed the winner just six minutes from time. Handling said: “It was a special feeling that I won’t forget for a long time. It was right up there with the goal I scored for Hibs at Ibrox, my favourite two.

“It was a bit of a novelty going down to Wales to play the game but I think the result against their top club shows what we are capable of.

“People might decry the Irn-Bru Cup but ask any player and they’ll tell you they want to be involved in finals. They’d bite your hand off to play in one.”

Dumbarton and Caley have enjoyed a win apiece against each other this season, John Robertson’s side four points ahead although both clubs are precariously close to the bottom of the Championship table.

Handling said: “We’ve had a tough season but we’ve enjoyed back-to-back wins over Brechin and are very focused on Saturday.

“Hopefully we can carry that on into the final although it’s going to be a tough game as Caley are a strong side with good players.

“But it’s a final, anything can happen on the day. It’s whoever wants it most. Scoring in the semi-final was a release of energy for me after being out injured for so long but to win the trophy would be the best thing I’ve done in my career.”

Having to go part-time has resulted in Handling having to find another job to supplement his wages and that, he admitted, has proved to be a wake-up call – quite literally.

Thanks to a friend, he’s working in local chicken farm with his days starting at 7am, a time he concedes few football players probably know exists.

He said: “As a full-time player at a club like Hibs, you perhaps tend to take everything for granted, you are pampered. I’ve been in football since I was 15 and didn’t really have anything to fall back on but I’m enjoying it. It’s a good job and keeps me active.

“Obviously, I’d love to go back into full-time football but that’s outwith my control.”