Every current Hibs player will be dreaming of savouring their own Ross Caldwell moment in Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie at Tynecastle.
For all that there has been plenty revelry over Paul Hanlon’s late equaliser in last season’s fifth-round match away to Hearts, it is Caldwell who stands as the last man in a green-and-white shirt to score an Edinburgh derby winner on enemy territory.
As a player who has endured a difficult time of it ever since, the 23-year-old still cherishes memories of the day he curled a last-minute effort beyond Jamie MacDonald to secure a dramatic 2-1 victory for Pat Fenlon’s side after Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick had cancelled out Darren Barr’s opener for Gary Locke’s Hearts team in a bottom-six Premiership showdown in May 2013.
In that moment, in his second start for the club and aged just 19, Caldwell became one of only three players – Derek Riordan and Brian Kerr are the others – to experience the thrill of scoring a derby winner for Hibs at Tynecastle in the last decade. “It all just seemed to happen so quickly,” Caldwell told the Evening News as he reflected on his glory moment almost four years on. “When the ball hit the net, I was in shock. It all seemed to go still for a second and then the stadium just erupted. It took a few seconds just to register what had actually happened and how big an occasion it was because it was the first time I’d ever made such a big impact in such a big match. I’ve not watched it back for a wee while, but still to this day I get people occasionally bringing it up and talking about how important a goal it was. The fans really seemed to appreciate it.”
Unfortunately for Caldwell, that was as good as it got for him at Hibs. Although he appeared in four derbies – two wins, a draw and a defeat – as well as the 2013 Scottish Cup final defeat by Celtic and the 2-0 Europa League defeat away to Malmo a couple of months later, the academy graduate was released following the club’s relegation in summer 2014. In total, he accumulated 27 appearances – three from the start – and two goals for Hibs. “That goal against Hearts is the highlight of my career,” said Caldwell, currently with Brechin City. “It was just such an incredible moment. I’ve never done anything to surpass that moment, and I doubt I ever will. I scored the week before [in a 3-3 draw with St Mirren] and then I scored at Tynecastle, so I was hoping that would be the start of a run and I could kick on from there. The only problem was that those goals came near the end of the season so after that we broke up for the summer, and I just couldn’t seem to pick up where I’d left off.”
The arrival of more experienced strikers like James Collins and Rowan Vine in summer 2013, plus the subsequent emergence of Jason Cummings from the youth ranks, did little to aid Caldwell’s cause. But most damaging of all to his bid to build on a promising finish to the 2012/13 campaign was the arrival of Terry Butcher to replace Fenlon as manager in November 2013. Just two games into the Englishman’s reign, Caldwell was involved in a public spat with Butcher after he was substituted in stoppage time of a Scottish Cup tie away to Ross County, despite only having been sent on in place of Danny Handling in the 80th minute. Hibs were leading 1-0 but down to ten men and clinging on following Paul Cairney’s red card. Butcher didn’t feel Caldwell was working hard enough, and a heated exchange with the manager as he made his way off the pitch to be replaced by Tom Taiwo was to prove his final act in a Hibs jersey. He was sent to Alloa Athletic on loan a month later and didn’t have his contract renewed in the summer.
“Me and Butcher just didn’t get on, which is well documented after what happened in the Ross County game,” said Caldwell. “It was very demeaning and embarrassing. He said I looked tired and leggy and that I wasn’t trying, which I completely disagreed with. I’d barely been on the pitch for ten minutes. We were down to ten men, so I was having to cover for the extra man. Any time, I stopped to get a breather, when the ball was out of play or that, I was getting screamed at from the sidelines. I was giving it all I could but, because I’d just come on, I couldn’t get a second breath.
“We spoke in his office on the Monday and he told me I should apologise to him for not shaking his hand or whatever. I told him it was embarrassing what he had done to me, almost bully-like. I was still a young boy so a few of the senior boys had a word in my ear to try and control and diffuse the situation. It was the first time I’d been involved in an altercation with a manager like that, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Sometimes these things work for you and sometimes they’ll go against you, and that one certainly went against me. To be honest, though, I wouldn’t change what I did if it happened again.
“Looking back, I think that fallout was the end for me because when he first came in, I was still making the squad and getting off the bench here and there. After that I went out on loan and never played again for Hibs. Butcher killed my career at Hibs. I don’t like him for what he’s done. I didn’t appreciate him as a coach. I’m sure other players will have different opinions about him, but my opinion is that I don’t like the man.
“Pat seemed to take a liking to me and put a bit of trust in me but when we had the change of manager, everything was reset. If Pat had stayed, I think I would have played more, and adapted more to being in the first team rather than just getting a few five-minute run-outs here and there. It’s all ifs, buts and maybes though.”
Caldwell, from Hamilton, emerged into Fenlon’s team alongside boyhood friends like Alex Harris, Danny Handling and Jordon Forster, who had graduated from James McDonaugh’s highly-regarded development team. All four featured in the 2013 Scottish Cup final, while Sam Stanton – another member of this promising batch – came to prominence the following season. “Once you get into the first team, it can be a bit scary,” said Caldwell, who joined Hibs in 2007. “It’s like your first day at school. But the fact there was a fair number of us coming through together was good because it made it easier to bed yourself in and feel comfortable in the first team. It was a good time.”
Things started to unravel for Caldwell just as Cummings, two years his junior, was coming on to the scene. Indeed, Cummings was given his first notable game time in the matches immediately following Caldwell’s bust-up with Butcher. Three years down the line, Cummings has scored more than 50 goals for Hibs and is viewed as the most promising young striker in Scotland, while Caldwell has lurched into the part-time ranks and is struggling to get a game for Brechin, his fifth club since leaving Easter Road. “It could have been me [playing regularly for Hibs], but equally it might not have been me,” he said. “Jason got his chance and he took it – you can’t take that away from him. He’s scoring goals week in, week out and I’m happy for him. He was mainly in the 20s when I was there but you could see he was a talent. He was very raw but he was powerful and clearly had an eye for goal. We played a few 20s games together, but then he went into the first team and I dropped out of the plans at Hibs.”
Caldwell admits the last three years have been a struggle. A move to St Mirren, then still in the top flight, didn’t work out, and he has subsequently had spells at Morton, Ayr United and Cowdenbeath, with limited success. Flitting in and out of Darren Dods’ Brechin side at 23 wasn’t part of the plan when he was seemingly announcing himself on the scene with his Edinburgh derby winner. “It’s not gone tremendously well since I left Hibs,” he said. “I’ve not played as much as I would have liked. I seem to get a club but then can’t force a consistent starting place.
“When you’re on the fringes at a big club like Hibs, you can get sucked in by the fantasy of thinking you’re going to kick on to bigger and better things and earn thousands of pounds a week, but the sad reality for the majority is that that doesn’t happen. Most of us leave full-time football and end up back at square one again, needing to get qualifications and rebuild for a new career.
“You need a very strong mind to deal with that because you can get upset and depressed. I’ve had great family and friends around me who have supported me. I’ve had a few jobs here and there, but it’s difficult to get jobs that tie in with being a part-time footballer, training nights and playing on a Saturday. I wish I’d had some kind of education or something when I was at Hibs.
“I played in big games at Hibs, and I’m lucky to have had that experience. Nobody can take that away from me, but hopefully I can get back up there and do it again because once you get a taste of it, you don’t want to let it go. I’m not playing regularly at Brechin just now but I think if I can stay fit and get a proper run of games I can still get back up to a higher level.”