Ex- Hibs youngster Baillie back to enjoying his first love

IT may seem a world away from the night he made his Hibs debut against the likes of Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton, but today Jonathan Baillie is simply happy just to be playing in the more down-to-earth surroundings of Junior football.

A glittering future was predicted for the tall defender following his stunning performance as Bobby Williamson's side stunned Celtic by coming from behind to clinch a place in the semi-finals of the CIS Insuranc Cup five years ago.

Baillie was only 18 as he made his surprise appearance against what was then Scottish football's most lethal strikeforce – but his dream soon became a nightmare as he found himself cursed by injury.

Two operations on a troublesome big toe followed by a broken foot and then three bouts of surgery on a back problem finally persuaded the affable big youngster to call quits on his professional career at just 21 years of age.

He said: "Everyone, the surgeon, doctors, the physio agreed that my back would get better, it was just a case of when. No-one knew when that would be, all I could do was hope for the best.

"That's when I made my decision to call it a day, I didn't want days turning into weeks, months and so on."

Baillie returned to his native Ayrshire to begin a new career as a car salesman but, he admitted today, it took the death of his only brother Colin in a road accident to nudge him back to football.

He said: "Colin was only 17, he was driving his car to work as a roofer and lost control. It was a tragic accident two years ago next month. Colin had been there for my debut and it meant a lot to me that he looked up to me. His death made me realise how short life is and that rather than sit about letting my body rot away I should start doing something to become more active whether it was playing golf, going jogging or trying football again."

Baillie began training with local junior side Hurlford and played on a few occasions for them but, when things didn't work out, accepted an invitation from Troon Juniors manager John Redmond, who he knew, to play for the Portland Park side.

He said: "I just wanted to get playing football again, to take things at my own pace. So far everything has been going well.

"It can still get a bit stiff and sore because there is so much scar tissue and I have regular physiotherapy but there's been no recurrence of the back injury."

While Baillie can count Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan and Garry O'Connor among his team-mates that night back in December 2003, he insisted he isn't in the least envious of the different paths their lives have led them in the intervening period.

He said: "It would be easy for me to dwell on the past, that's an easy way out but my mum and dad, Liz and Billy, and the rest of my family would never have allowed me to sit back, feel sorry for myself and wonder 'what if'.

"I'm honestly chuffed to bits for all the boys I played with – and don't forget Craig Conway who was a team-mate when I had a spell on loan with Ayr United and who played for Scotland in Japan the other week – who have done so well for themselves, there's not an ounce of jealousy in me.

"Of course, I would have loved to have given a shot like them but it was something outwith my control which stopped me playing, it's not as if I can look back with regret at having done something myself which ended my career with Hibs."

Naturally, Baillie has all but lost contact with those at Easter Road, the playing staff having undergone a massive upheaval under Williamson's successors Tony Mowbray, John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen and now John Hughes.

He said: "Football's fickle that way, you train with these guys every day then you drift apart. I wouldn't say Scott Brown is a big pal but he sends me a text from time to time.

"Other than that, I keep in touch with Ally Brown as we lived together while kids with Hibs. He's now at Forfar so I look out for their result on a Saturday night to see how Ally has done, check how Ayr have done and then the clubs where boys I knew are playing."

Given the "blood and thunder" reputation junior football in Ayrshire has enjoyed over the years, one might wonder if that's the arena for someone like Baillie, following his injury problems, to enter particularly when opponents recall he was once an SPL player.

But he has no such concerns. He said: "I remember my dad taking me to junior football as a kid and it was eye-watering stuff to say the least. There's a lot of derbies as you would expect, some big clubs in this area but with the exception of one or two most are capable of beating each other.

"As for the reputation junior football has, there's a lot of boys now playing who have come out of the professional game and it's a lot more technical than people give it credit.

"As for worrying I might become a target because I once played for Hibs, I don't give it a second thought. I'm not a big-time Charlie, I look to apply myself in every game and give the opposition players the respect they deserve.

"For me, it was simply a case of wanting to get back playing again, it didn't matter whether it was at the top level or with my mates in the park.

"I think it's only once you have had something and it is taken away that makes you appreciate how much you miss it.

"All my family and friends say they have noticed the change in me, that I am so much happier now I am playing football again."

Although he is still only 24, Baillie insisted it's far too early to make any long-term predictions He said: "I had some offers over the summer to go to higher level junior sides but I'd only played half a season and I want to confirm my fitness to myself. I'm still young but who knows what it (the future] holds?"

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