Liam Fontaine may now be wearing rival colours, but there is no chance of his strong feelings for Hibs fading.
After arriving in August 2014 at the fledgling stage of their post-relegation renaissance, the defender left three-and-a-half years later with the Easter Road club re-established at the top end of the Premiership and having re-connected with their fanbase following their historic Scottish Cup triumph in 2016.
Although he felt compelled to leave Hibs a fortnight ago to join Ross County in search of regular football after an injury-ravaged 2017, Fontaine is proud to have played a prominent role in one of the most rousing periods in their history.
“Hibs was a very enjoyable and successful part of my career,” Fontaine told the Evening News. “It was great to be part of the rebuilding process. I didn’t initially expect to be there for three-and-a-half years because I had played most of my career in the English Championship to that point and I only signed a one-year contract at the start. I just wanted to get back playing and I wanted a new challenge.
“Alan Stubbs rang me and told me he wanted me to be part of it and he was someone I’d followed as a player, being a defender, so it was a chance to work with him. When I came up, met Alan, saw the city and the club, it very much gripped me and I dived into it with two feet and immersed myself in what became the Hibs way. I obviously wasn’t there when Hibs got relegated but from what I can gather there was a bit of a divide between the team and the fans. Leeann Dempster, George Craig and Alan really wanted to address that and reconnect with the fans, and that struck me straight away.
“It was great to be part of it and interact and become so close to the fans over the years. I was very proud to be part of the club at that time. I felt like the club was always on an upward curve throughout that three-and-a-half years. Any footballer will tell you the best part is trying to win things and it felt like that’s what we were always doing in my time at Hibs.
“That was testament to what was building there pretty much from day one. Obviously it took a few years to get out of the Championship when everybody wanted a quick return – a quick fix if you like – but I think, looking back now, every Hibs fan would take the way it happened.
“Winning the Scottish Cup was obviously the biggest thing. To be part of that and to be able to look back and say I played that day is something that will always live with me. The bond with that squad that won the Scottish Cup will be lifelong. I imagine in the future, the team will be invited back and it will be great to be part of it.
“There were loads of other games I enjoyed. I always enjoyed the derbies – apparently I was unbeaten in the games against Hearts so those games stick out, especially the ones under the lights at Easter Road. I also enjoyed the game where we eventually won the Championship.”
Fontaine had become one of Hibs’ longest-serving players towards the end of his time at the club. The 32-year-old former Bristol City player left with a heavy heart after a couple of bad injuries in 2017 led to him losing his status as a regular starter under Neil Lennon.
“My passion for Hibs is no secret,” he said. “It’s a club that’s very much part of me now. I moved up myself in the first year but after I got the longer contract I moved the family up to Scotland. My family very much enjoyed being in Edinburgh and at Hibs. If you’re ever around the club, it’s a very close club where everyone knows everyone. I made great friends at Hibs. I’m still in touch with the old coaches like Taff (Andy Holden), John Doolan and Alan Stubbs. It was a good place to be.
“I was gutted to leave. It’s not something I wanted to do but as a player I had to do it because I needed to play games and do what I enjoy doing. It wasn’t a case of ‘I need to get out of Hibs’ but 2017 was very patchy for me. I started it by playing really well. I remember playing Hearts in the Scottish Cup and I felt personally I was back at the top of my game, but in the Dunfermline game straight after that I was on the end of a bad tackle and that was my season done.
“I fought back, got a new deal, started some games in the Betfred Cup and then had a nightmare in a 20s game when I suffered a freak injury, so I didn’t play much part in this season. With the boys doing so well and new players like Efe Ambrose having come in, it was always going to be hard to get in.
“The gaffer was easy to go and speak to and I spoke to him when I got back from the last injury in early December. He said it was great to have me back on the training pitch for my influence and experience but that the boys were doing well. I totally understood that because I know when people are playing well and deserve to keep the shirt. All I could do was train as hard as I always do but January was coming and I needed to play games. I could have stayed but I want to play games, especially at the age I’m at. If I was younger I might have stayed and battled away but I just needed to get out and play games. It was a hard decision to leave Hibs but sometimes you’ve just got to do something to reignite yourself.”
Fontaine has set about doing that by starting both games for bottom-of-the-Premiership County. “I got thrown straight in against Aberdeen and then played against Dundee so that was two 90-minute games in four days and there were no problems injury-wise,” he said. “I’m all good – I’ve been fit for a while and ready to go.”
A 4-1 win at Dundee in his second outing gave Fontaine hope that his new side can avoid relegation. They host on-form Hearts this Saturday. “I’m just looking forward to every game at the moment – it’s no different for me playing against Hearts than it was playing against Dundee,” he said. “Hearts are going well and they’ve instilled a bit of strength at the back. They’ll be a tough challenge for us so we need to step up. But you saw how good we were against Dundee and even in the Aberdeen game, we shouldn’t have lost 4-2. I’m coming here from a successful few years in my career, so I’ve got the mindset of being a winner and being successful. Hopefully that can rub off on to the team at Ross County.”