For the past two months, there was little Martin Boyle could do but hope that his efforts on the training pitch would earn him more than a seat on the bench.
As Hibs ploughed on relentlessly on three fronts, Boyle found himself on the fringes, desperate to play his part, happy to see his team-mates doing so well but keenly aware that as long as they continued to do so his chances of making the starting line-up would remain slim.
His last start more than two months ago – in the 1-0 home win over Queen of the South – was fast becoming a fading memory, the former Montrose and Dundee winger limited to just four appearances as a substitute. Knowing he wasn’t alone was little comfort, like any player he desperately craved the opportunity to show his worth.
Inevitably, a manager’s stance is that players in Boyle’s situation have to be ready to take the chance when it presents itself and the 22-year-old certainly did that on Sunday, boosting his goals tally for the season to five with a double against Championship basement outfit Alloa Athletic as Alan Stubbs, confronted with a gruelling schedule of League Cup, Championship and Scottish Cup matches – five such games in just 14 days – rang the changes big style.
Such was the head coach’s faith in his squad, he made seven changes to the team which had enjoyed that Scottish Cup triumph over arch-rivals Hearts only a few days earlier, just one of them enforced upon him, the one-game ban imposed on Lewis Stevenson which postponed the defender’s milestone 300th appearance in green and white until, presumably, tomorrow night’s league clash with Morton.
It was a move which could have dramatically backfired but, within four minutes, Boyle had Hibs ahead. Dan Carmichael, another introduced as the likes of Anthony Stokes, Jason Cummings, John McGinn, David Gray, Darren McGregor and Kevin Thomson were “rested”, added another and Boyle claimed his second of the match to keep the club hard on the heels of Rangers in the chase for the Championship title.
Boyle said: “It was great to come in and have such an impact. The gaffer made a few changes with all the games we’ve had and the ones coming up so it was a chance for boys like me who haven’t been getting much game time to show what we are capable of.
“It has been quite difficult. We’ve been working hard in training hoping to get that chance but the other side is that the team have been doing so well piling up the results which means you don’t really have any room for complaint.
“We’d come through a run of games including those two derbies which were both physically and mentally demanding and we have another tough run coming up leading to the League Cup final which, of course, everyone wants to play in.
“The boys have been very professional about it, very focused and working hard in training and on matchdays but we’ve all known when we need to rest. The fact the gaffer could make so many changes just shows the strength of squad we have, that we can rotate it as he did and still get a good result.
“The gaffer has said more than once that he has faith in each of us, that he’d have no worries putting any of us in for any game. I’d been waiting a while to get a sniff. I thought we put on a good attacking performance. I wasn’t surprised he made so many changes, he’d said during the week he was going to make some so it was a case of being ready in your head for the opportunity.
“It was a dream start to score so early. a great ball from Liam Henderson. I think I made his mind up with my run but he does that all the time in training and, yes, it comes off then as well. I was delighted to see Dan get a goal after being out so long with injuries. He was as chuffed as I was and like me he’ll now be hoping to get a run of games.
“His goal just before half-time calmed everything down although we had a lot of chances and perhaps weren’t as clinical as we might have been. On another day, we might have got five or six, but getting the third rounded the day off and, with another clean sheet, we also looked very solid defensively.”
With trips to Dumbarton and Queen of the South before the Scottish Cup quarter-final against Inverness Caley to follow the visit of Morton tomorrow, Boyle wouldn’t bet against Stubbs mixing things up time and again although the former Celtic and Everton defender has insisted he’s not a tinkerman – making changes simply for the sake of it.
Boyle said: “He knows he can freshen the team up as much as he likes because he knows he has a strong squad. We have a lot of big games coming up. In fact, every game between now and the end of the season is a cup final. But we know exactly what we have to do.”
And, having slipped up against Livingston, managing only a draw hours after Rangers had dropped points at Alloa, Boyle insisted he and his team-mates are well aware of the significance of the visit of Morton, a game in hand Hibs have over their title rivals, who currently lead them by eight points.
“We missed an opportunity at Livingston,” he admitted. “So we know we have to put in a performance against Morton. We’re not going to pitch up thinking it’s an easy match, Morton are a tough team to beat as we’ve already found this season and they’ve picked up some impressive results.”
It’s all building up to be a dramatic finale to the season but one which, Boyle conceded, will count for little unless Stubbs’ players continue to build on an already impressive record which now stands at just one defeat in 28 matches.
He said: “It’s a fantastic run, one that we don’t want to come to an end. We go into every game looking to win, we have a really strong winning mentality. Everyone wants to play, we all want a place in the League Cup final squad and I’m sure the gaffer will continue to make changes to keep things fresh.
“But, when you look at a bench with John McGinn, Kevin Thomson, Anthony Stokes, Jason Cummings, Darren McGregor and David Gray sitting on it, you realise just how strong the squad is. These guys have been doing it all season while some of us have had to sit and watch so, given the chance, we want to be doing the same.
“We know how hard things are doing to be but, if we can keep extending the great run we are on, then it’s going to be some finish to the season.”