WITH a protective mask that has earned him the nickname ‘Phantom’ around Hibs’ training centre this week and a moustache that is more ‘Mask of Zorro’, Michael Nelson returned to action last night hoping to be noticed more for his robust defending than his curious appearance.
Nelson played for the first time in a month as he played the full 90 minutes of Hibs’ under-20s 4-0 win at Hamilton last night – Jason Cummings netting a hat-trick – and having admitted to a feeling of regret that he had missed Terry Butcher’s managerial opener at St Mirren, he said he desperately wanted to win back his place at centre-half for Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie at Ross County.
The 33-year-old from Gateshead is still suffering from numbness in his gum, lip and cheek as a result of the fractured cheekbone he sustained against Celtic last month. That lack of feeling is not the explanation for the shelf of hair that has appeared on his upper lip – Nelson has relinquished his razor for the purposes of raising cash for the ‘Movember’ charity – but the urgent determination of the defender to resume his Hibs career is underlined by his courage.
“It’s fine now. I’ve had no complications since the operation. It’s just a case of wearing the mask and getting on with things,” he said at Hibs’ training centre near Tranent. “There is still numbness in the top set of teeth on the left-hand side, just my cheek and my top lip. It seems to have subsided a little but I don’t know if it’s just me getting used to it or it’s actually going. But it’s fine. They took a cast off my face a week after the operation so it fits quite snug. It just sits on top of the tache! But no, I thought it might be quite uncomfortable, especially when I’m heading the ball, but it’s been fine. No complaints and I’m fit and ready for selection again.”
Nelson said he had not yet seen anything especially favourable for defenders resulting from the recruitment of Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas, two defensive greats, as manager and assistant manager. The big priority, of course, is for Hibs to move up a league goalscoring chart that they currently prop up. For the former Norwich City and Kilmarnock defender, the most important thing is that he picks up where he left off in that 1-1 draw with the champions.
“I felt I was playing well. I felt everybody really played well in that game and we were unlucky we didn’t manage to hold out, but that’s football,” said Nelson. “There’s no good time to get injured. You’ve just got to take it on the chin and move on. I’m fully back now – four weeks from the operation was the [time frame] to get back in full contact and this Friday it will be five weeks.
“It’s up to me to do well in training and try and prove myself to the manager. I wished I could have got the operation on the Monday after it happened and then I would have been back in time for last week’s game. But I’ve just got to try and force my way into his plans.
“He’s obviously played at the highest level and with him being a centre-half there is a lot he can pass on to me and the younger boys. It’s good, but when a new manager comes in it’s always a case of just trying to see what they want you to do as an individual, and as a team, and get everyone to buy into what they want.”
The Scottish Cup is on the agenda this week, and Nelson is not such a blow-in at Hibs that he doesn’t know what this means. It means he will be asked questions about 1902. Like Butcher, the defender came to the press conference armed with an answer.
“Players just get on with it. A lot of the players who are here weren’t here last year, so they haven’t got that connection the way the press and the fans have,” said Nelson, who won the League Cup with Killie within two months of joining.
“You’ve got people who have been here since they were kids supporting them, and now they’re in their 50s and 60s, and it sticks with them throughout. Not every season but every two or three seasons there’s a turnover of players, so you don’t get that prolonged stint at a club where it really affects you.”
For all that, playing in the Scottish Cup for Hibs does grant a player the chance to do something the fanbase will never forget. “I’d been at Kilmarnock two months when we won the League Cup,” he recalled. “It would be a massive thing for the boys, especially after some of the comments. It’s almost like the past history of the cup gets labelled on the current group of players, so for us to go out and prove that we can have a good run and we can do something, we’d get massive status around the city.
“Whoever’s in the squad during that season, they would be remembered for a long, long time.”