Neal Eardley is aiming to banish three years of misery after his career effectively stalled following his move from Blackpool to Birmingham City.
Until that point, the 27-year-old right-back was a regular at the Seasiders and considered a genuine option for the Welsh national team. Having tasted Premier League football during Blackpool’s memorable 2010/11 campaign, Eardley intended to progress his career by moving to Birmingham in summer 2013.
In the intervening period, however, he has managed only 21 competitive appearances and missed out on potential involvement with his country during their remarkable surge to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 earlier this year.
After securing a short-term deal until January, Eardley is viewing his move to Hibs as a chance to regain some much-needed momentum in what should be the peak years of his career.
“It’s been a very frustrating three years from a personal point of view,” he said. “I don’t like to make excuses but the injuries I had were really bad ones. Birmingham was a great club with good people but the injuries were just so unfortunate. It was not like it was a recurring problem I had. It was two cruciate ligament injuries on either side and a dislocated shoulder. What can you do?”
Eardley admits it has been a mentally testing time since his run of misfortune began with his first cruciate ligament injury, just weeks into his time at Birmingham.
“That was the first serious injury I had,” he said. “Making my debut at 17 and playing up until 24, 25 with no injuries, I’m thankful for that. I was very unfortunate to pick up the cruciate injury but I felt I came back from that a lot stronger and a lot fitter. I thought I was in the best shape of my life. Then the following season, it was a bit indifferent, I was in and out of the team and there were a couple of niggling injuries.
“We had a new manager that came in and the team did well so it was difficult to get in the side. The following year was really positive again and I managed to get myself in the side, but I got a dislocated shoulder [in September 2015] and I was back out. I got myself back in and got the cruciate [in January of this year]. I felt as if I was constantly trying to get back and wasn’t fit really. It was difficult but It’s made me a better person,” he said. “I know that might sound clichéd but I do feel a lot stronger and fitter for it. I would like to brush that aside and look forward to this year at Hibs.”
Eardley will never forget that dream season in the Premier League when manager Ian Holloway had Blackpool flying high before they eventually lost their way and got relegated.
“I had four terrific years at Blackpool, I was part of a squad that was really successful and I achieved a dream in playing in the Premier League for a season,” he said. “Ian Holloway was brilliant. I remember one time we had a meeting before training and he was banging on about building a house for his chickens – it had nothing to do with football.
“We all just sat back and listened to him for an hour and to this day the Blackpool players still don’t know what the message behind it was. I absolutely loved working for him. I wouldn’t change anything about the four years I had at Blackpool. Coming to the end of my contract, I was offered a deal and offered something at Birmingham and for me, Birmingham was the next step in my career. Things didn’t work but that happens, no regrets.”
Eardley’s last appearance for Wales came in a 3-1 defeat by Scotland in the Carling Nations Cup in Dublin in May 2011. A part of him will always wonder if he would have been part of Chris Coleman’s squad in France this summer if he hadn’t had such wretched injury problems.
“My last involvement with Wales was under Gary Speed. I featured under John Toshack regularly and that is who I got most of my Wales caps under. After that I lost my way in the Wales set-up. I was picked by Chris Coleman [in 2013] but I did my cruciate playing for Birmingham the day before I was due to meet up with the squad.
“It was just unfortunate and part of me will always wonder if I hadn’t done my knee would I still have been involved and would I have continued to have played for Wales and been involved at the Euros. Now that I am here I hope that I can bring something to the table and force my way into the Hibs team and I can think about Wales international set-up further down the line.”
Eardley knows he faces a battle with club captain and Scottish Cup legend David Gray to earn regular game time at right-back.
“I am not naive enough to think I can walk into the Hibs team as I will have to work hard,” he said. “David Gray is a big character in the dressing room and is a top player and captain for this club. It is up to the manager to decide what team he picks but I will work hard in training and hopefully get an opportunity to play.”