Jonathan Baillie opens up on Hibs career, tragedy with brother's death, Rod Petrie's kindness and that match against Celtic
Those who saw him shackle Henrik Larsson on his senior debut back on December 18, 2003 reckoned Jonathan Baillie was a future Hibs captain in the making. Instead his story is one of heartbreak and tragedy.
The centre-half, then 18, turned in a colossal performance on what was a famous night at Easter Road, as Bobby Williamson's youthful home side came from behind to knock Celtic out of the CIS Cup, with a late Kevin Thomson strike sealing the quarter-final victory after Grant Brebner's penalty had cancelled out Stanislav Varga's opener for Martin O'Neill's men.
Watching from the stand were his proud parents, Billy and Liz, and his awestruck younger brother, Colin, who was celebrating his 14th birthday on the same day.
With praise coming from all angles - the match was broadcast live on Channel 5 with commentators hailing a "supreme performance'' - Baillie seemingly had the world at his feet.
But all his hopes and dreams would soon be turned upside-down when, just three and a half years after that promising debut, and having managed only three further appearances for Hibs, a chronic back injury forced him to retire from playing aged just 21.
While still coming to terms with the end of his football career, a far more devastating loss was to follow in November 2007 with the tragic death of his younger brother following a car accident in Prestwick. Colin lost his fight for life after spending 10 days in a coma. He was just 17.
Having endured such pain and hardship, Baillie would be more than entitled to harbour resentment over the cruel fate bestowed upon him and his family, but he is determined to maintain a positive outlook on life, crediting his parents for instilling a mental strength that has enabled him to stay on the right track.
‘Always in my mind’
"It sounds daft, but you've only got two options - you either fall or stand. That's the way I've always looked at it," he said.
"Dad always brought me up that you control what you can control, and you deal with things. I've been lucky that I've had that upbringing and it's helped me deal with things.
"Don't get me wrong, it's been hard. Anyone will tell you that's lost someone close to them, or a close relative before their time, it's not something you get over. You take it with you every day. You don't get over something like that. You just learn to live with.
"There's not a day or minute that goes by when I don't think about him in some shape or form, because he's always in my mind. But you learn to live with it and carry it with you.
"As you get older, that's all you can really do because if you start thinking that 'I need to get over this', or 'I need get through this', that can send you down a dark path. It's accepting what's happened has happened, and you're going to have to live with it."
Baillie has also relied on that same parental guidance to help him overcome the disappointment of the premature curtailment of his football career, one that seemed destined to lead him towards the Hibs armband.
I don’t want to be that guy standing at the bar ...
"It's a hard one because if you fall into the trap of what could have been that you can fall into quite a dark place," he said.
"I was always captain or thereabouts of youth teams because I was aggressive and a talker, which came naturally to me. I enjoyed that part of the game, so people always looked at me as that type.
"I wouldn't want to look back and say, 'woe is me', or any of that kind of stuff. My mum and dad were brilliant at just saying, 'look, you need to get one with it, you can't worry about what could have been'. I don't want to be that guy standing on the bar saying I could have been this or that. It's not my personality and I think that's a credit to my mum and dad.
"I think it would have been different if it was down to me. You look at players who maybe didn't fulfil their potential through their own actions, but for me it was injuries, something I couldn't control through unfortunate events. If you can't control something there's no point stressing over it and making it a big issue. You just have to accept it I suppose and realise it wasn't anything you did and just move on from there."
One thing that cannot be taken away from Baillie is the memories of that cold winter's night 17 years ago when, for 90 minutes at least, he got to live the dream.
Head it, kick it, tackle it
"Everybody makes their debut in a different way, but for me that was a dream come true to play in that game. To play so well, and win the game, was just incredible," he said.
"I had an inkling because Colin Murdock was suspended for the game and the coaches were talking to me and saying, 'you might have a chance'.
"Looking at the team sheets beforehand it was quite surreal. They had Larsson and Sutton starting up front and unbelievable players all over the park.
"But I was just a big simple centre-half so there was nothing really concerning me. All I was concentrating on was heading it, kicking it and tackling.
"After the game, I was absolutely buzzing and on a high for the next wee while. I don't think I slept much that night, but Bobby [Williamson, then Hibs manager] brought me back to earth by putting me on the bench the next week!"
Shaving away the bone
Baillie had to wait until the following March for his second appearance, which also came against Celtic - a 4-0 defeat at Easter Road that saw him sent off - before getting another taste of first team action in a 3-1 victory over Livingston in April.
His injury problems began soon afterwards when pain in his foot prompted an x-ray which revealed enlarged growth plates in his big toes, causing arthritis in the joint, which required a trip to a specialist in London for corrective surgery, involving cutting open his foot and shaving away seven millimetres of bone.
It meant a significant spell on the sidelines but after working hard to regain fitness, Baillie was sent on loan to Ayr United in January 2006. It was around this time he started noticing stiffness in his back, but things took a significant turn for the worse before a Scottish Cup replay against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Somerset Park.
‘I couldn't bend my back’
"It was in the warm-up when I bent over to pull my socks up and something went ping. I couldn't really stand up or straighten my left leg, and I had shooting pains down my leg," he recalled. "I didn't want it to look like I didn't want to play, so I carried on and played the game, and I really shouldn't have.
"The game was live on Sky and when we watched it back, when I bent down to pick the ball up for a throw-in, I had to squat because I couldn't bend my back."
A scan revealed that Baillie had ruptured two discs, an injury that would ultimately result in three back operations within the next nine months, leaving him crippled in agony and barely able to walk.
It ultimately forced him to accept his career was over - but Hibs stood by him and for this he remains eternally grateful.
Rod Petrie’s kindness
"It was getting to the stage where it wasn't getting any better, I was still in alot of pain, I still couldn't put my socks on, I couldn't move," he said. "That's when I sat down with the club and said I can't do it anymore.
"I still had two-and-a-half years left on my contract, but I had to step away and try to get myself better. To be fair, the club was brilliant with me and I can't thank them enough, Rod Petrie in particular.
"I know Rod gets a bad rap for being a bit tight and stingy sometimes, but he was class with me. The club basically put me on gardening leave so they honoured the contract I had left, which allowed me to come home and recover, and try to start another career.
"It was great not having to worry about finances. l still had wages coming in from the club every month, which was amazing because I basically came home and spent 18 months on the couch, just not being able to move, walk or get out and do anything.
"It was a tough time so it was great the club allowed me not to have the added worry of not having any money.
"I managed to get back through to a Hibs-Hearts game a few years ago, and it was good. l was in hospitality and got up to say a few words which was nice.
"It was good to see a few old faces like Tam and Joyce the kit man and kit woman. I just love the fact they still remember who I am and are happy to see me, which is a great feeling.
"You don't play that many games, but it's good that people still remember who you are and are interested in how you are getting on."
Return to football
Baillie's pain eventually eased enough to allow him to return to football, turning out for junior sides Glenafton, Whittlets Victoria and Troon, who he later went on to manage before quitting the post last year.
Now 34, he works as an employability and skills officer for South Ayrshire Council helping school leavers with the transition into employment. He may not have fulfilled his own career path, but he is helping others find theirs and it is heart-warming to hear him say that he is doing a job he loves, adding: "I get embarrassed when people say I've had a hard road. There's people a lot worse off than me."