When Terry Butcher announced he was looking for a hero at New Douglas Park most Hibs fans probably looked in the direction of Paul Heffernan, the experienced striker having made a shock return to action to add firepower to the shot-shy Easter Road outfit.
But the much-travelled Irishman found his thunder stolen by 18-year-old Jason Cummings, the youngster’s first two goals for Hibs all but ensuring their survival in the Scottish Premiership as Championship rivals Hamilton were left with a mountain to climb in Sunday’s play-off second leg.
Heffernan, however, couldn’t have been happier for a kid who this time last year was playing for Hutchison Vale and working as a gardener having been axed by Capital rivals Hearts following a serious knee injury, the striker then spurning the Tynecastle club’s overtures last summer to begin what has been a remarkable journey.
Sixteen times previously Cummings, a prolific scorer for Hibs Under-20s, had pulled on a green-and-white jersey with no success, but when it mattered most he came up with the goods, rifling a dipping shot over Kevin Cuthbert and then executing an exquisite “dink” to take out not only the goalkeeper but the two defenders in front of him.
And as far as Heffernan is concerned, it’s just the start of great things for his rookie team-mate. Revealing he hadn’t been surprised by boss Butcher’s gamble on Cummings rather than opting for James Collins in such an important game, the Dubliner said: “We’d done a bit of work in the last week or so.
“Jason is a very good player, he has a good touch and good awareness for a lad so young. He’s a clever player and it’s not hard to play with clever players. He’s been a bit unlucky not to have scored in the past for the first team, while we all know how prolific he’s been in the under-20 team.
“But what a time to chose to score your first goals. What a strike his first one was, but it was the second one which impressed me more. It was instinctive the way he took a touch and lifted the ball over the defenders and goalkeeper. He showed tremendous composure.”
Accies defender Ziggy Gordon made a valiant effort to hook the ball clear, causing a moment’s hesitation before assistant referee Graeme Leslie indicated to whistler Bobby Madden it had crossed the line, a decision fully vindicated by television which showed it was clearly in, not that Heffernan, who had supplied the original cross, was in any doubt.
He said: “I got a great view of it and it was well in. I was delighted for Jason because he had put in a fantastic shift, he’d worked his socks off and he deserved his goals.”
Like all strikers, Heffernan thrives on scoring, but while he’d naturally like to see Hibs get the first goal on Sunday to kill Accies off completely, he admitted he’d happily settle for another clean sheet, the shut-out on Wednesday night being Hibs’ first in ten matches.
Acknowledging the next goal in the double-header will be all-important, with Hamilton boss Alex Neil believing his side can throw the tie wide open again should they get it, Heffernan said: “It’s important we remember the job is only half done – we need to finish it off on Sunday.
“Getting the first goal would be ideal, it would put us three up and hopefully that would be enough to see us through. We’ll be trying to add to the two we got over there – that will be our plan – but Ben Williams and the lads at the back were delighted we hadn’t conceded.
“If we keep another clean sheet on Sunday then we’ll have won the tie.”
Having had his season declared over by Butcher after tearing a groin muscle as he warmed up before the visit of Aberdeen at the beginning of last month, Heffernan admits he’s just delighted to have been able to play his part in putting Hibs on the path to safety.
He said: “It’s been very frustrating, I thought my season was over, but thankfully I’ve managed to get back and do my bit. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to sit and watch from the sidelines when your team-mates are struggling. You want to help them, but you can’t.”
While Heffernan returned in the final game of the season having only had three days’ training, Butcher insisted the 90 minutes the player got under his belt allied to ten more days training would “do him the world of good,” a claim which was vindicated by the 32-year-old again lasting the entire match against Accies.
And if he didn’t score Heffernan played his part, a clever run giving Cummings that extra yard he needed to get his shot away for his first goal while it was his cross which fizzed to the back post and was finished with such aplomb by the youngster.
Heffernan said: “As a striker you are judged by the goals you score, you always feel disappointed if you come off having not found the net. But the most important thing was getting the win. We hadn’t done that for along time so there was a great sense of relief that we’d finally done so.
“I think there were plenty of positives for us to take, our first win in however long it had been, a clean sheet at last and, of course, two goals. But, as I say, the job is only half-done and it’s up to us to finish it off.
“It’s been a bitterly disappointing season – a massive club like Hibs shouldn’t be in this position. No-one wanted to be finishing second bottom and in the play-off, we should never have got ourselves into the situation where we’ve been threatened with a drop into the second tier.”
Hibs’ mediocre record, just one win in 19 games prior to their trip to New Douglas Park, and the fact Accies had lost only once in 15 matches had, naturally, seen the pressure cranked up on Butcher’s side with Hamilton boss Neil and his players doing their best to turn the heat up even further by claiming Butcher’s players were “running scared.” Heffernan, however, insisted that was never the case.
“Hamilton were going into the game with confidence as they’d had a good season, not far off winning their league. I think they expected us to be a bit low, but we weren’t. We hadn’t been winning but we felt we had been playing well. The break we had refreshed us, we were looking forward to the match and there wasn’t any apprehension at all.
“We’d done our homework on Hamilton, we knew what to expect. There were no surprises and now it’s all about finishing it off on Sunday.”