PAUL Heffernan had to wait for his chance to impress Terry Butcher, having been taken off injured five minutes into the manager’s first game in charge of Hibernian, against today’s opponents St Mirren.
But while the wait was a frustrating one, the 32-year-old, who has now started his team’s last two matches, need never have felt unduly anxious about having a place in the new boss’s plans.
After signing from Kilmarnock at the end of the last transfer window, Heffernan made an immediate impact at Easter Road, to the extent that it seemed he might even play a big role in keeping Pat Fenlon in a job. It was no coincidence that the striker was out, cup-tied, for what turned out to be his fellow-Irishman’s last match in charge – the 1-0 League Cup quarter-final defeat by Hearts.
With Heffernan in the team, Hibs looked more positive than at most other times under Fenlon. His intelligent running gave the midfield options that had been lacking, coaxing them to play a faster, more positive game.
Butcher made it clear very quickly when he arrived that he wanted to play precisely that kind of game: quicker, more assertive and far less hesitant.
Allowing Ross Caldwell to go out on loan to Alloa once Heffernan was fit again was a big vote of confidence by Butcher in the former Kilmarnock forward, who looks ready now to go on an extended run in the team. More strikers will probably be recruited – if not now, then during the summer – but, if Heffernan finds a good run of form, he may just help save his new manager some money.
“He is working his way back to full fitness, and in the last two games you can see he’s not quite there in terms of sharpness and the way he can play,” Butcher said. “But he’s certainly got the experience, and if we get the ball in the box for him he will invariably score.
“He’s a player who knows where to go, where to run, how to hold the ball up – he can play a very big part in what we want to achieve this season. We have good options up front and letting Ross Caldwell go on loan to Alloa was a reflection that we have Paul Heffernan getting back to full fitness.
“We have good options, but we’d like more and we are working on getting more in. If we can do that, then great, albeit Danny Handling and Jason Cummings have done very well.”
As he waited to make his return, Heffernan was aware that he was coming into a team that had already improved considerably in the early weeks under Butcher. “Just before I got back fit, they were looking at the stats and saying the amount of crosses we were getting into the box was the most we’d done for a long time,” he said. “If you put the ball in the box, you’re going to get chances. The way the team is playing at the minute we are creating some chances, so it’s up to us to stick them into the net.
“There was more of a possession game under the last manager. As I said, the quicker you get the ball into the final third, that will suit the strikers more. I’ve always said when you’re a striker you’re paid to score goals, and you’re judged on how many goals you score. So if you’re injured or not in the team you can’t score the goals. Now I’m fit I can get in the team and score some goals, and show the manager that I can stay in the team.
“When you come back from injury you’re playing catch-up a little bit with your fitness. But I’m fully fit now and feeling strong, and hopefully I can get myself in the team and keep myself there.
“He [Butcher] came in and wanted the team to get the ball forward a lot quicker than we had done under the last manager. He made a couple of changes and you want to try and fit in and show him you can do that sort of job.”
The return of Alex Harris, another player who has been on the injury list, should help further with that supply of balls into the box, and Heffernan is looking forward to the service from that quarter. “He’s an exciting player. I didn’t see much of him before he got injured, because I wasn’t here, but I’ve seen him in training in the last couple of weeks and he’s a very exciting player. He likes to get upfield and get crosses into the box, so hopefully he can get himself fit and into the team as well.”
Harris is likely to come off the bench in the second half of today’s match, which Heffernan thinks will be more open than the previous game between the sides, which ended goalless.
“The last few games we’ve played at Easter Road we’ve created a lot of chances – against Kilmarnock and then Hearts,” he said. “I’m sure St Mirren will come here and attack as well. They like to attack and pass the ball about as well, so hopefully they will leave a few gaps at the back and it will be a good entertaining game.”