ADAM Eckersley isn’t bitter but he remains bemused. The full-back joined former Hearts team-mate James Keatings in traversing the capital this season, swapping Hearts for Hibernian, after they were both declared surplus to requirements at Tynecastle.
Injuries curtailed their involvement with Hibs early on, and Eckersley has still to make his debut but, with five goals, including a hat-trick in last weekend’s victory over St Mirren, Keatings has been commanding the headlines and winning over the fans in Leith. Now, after two knee operations and five months on the sidelines, Eckersley is on the brink of involvement and hoping for as positive an impact, keen to be part of what he believes could be a title push.
Signed on a short-term deal until the end of January, the 30-year-old Englishman knew that moving from Hearts, a club where he was a fans’ favourite, making the shortlist for their Player of the Year award, to rivals Hibs would annoy some of those who had granted him cult status as he helped Robbie Neilson’s team to the Championship title last term. He also knew that his performances in maroon could prompt resistance from the Hibs hardcore. He knew all that but, ultimately, didn’t care.
He understands that loyalty in football is commanded by people only when it suits them, with few practising what they preach. For him the romance of it is a luxury he cannot afford to indulge in.
Happy to stay at Hearts, it was not an opportunity he was granted, as he was informed before the end of last season that the campaign would be his first and last with the club. From that point on, Hearts were never part of the equation. They provided him with happy memories, he helped furnish them with a league trophy and a promotion. They were quits.
“I had a few different offers from the SPL as well but none that really got me excited and with my knee being the way it was I couldn’t sign anywhere at that time anyway and that’s when I spoke to my family and said that I would get this period from now until January and then we were looking to go to America,” Eckersley said. “But Hibs had been in touch with me.
“Obviously it is a difficult one because I played a lot of games for Hearts last year and did well and I think the fans respected me. I knew the way Hearts fans feel about Hibs but at the end of the day it is my career and I have to do what is right for me and my family and whether that disappoints a few people, whether they are Hearts fans or Hibs fans, makes no difference to me.”
Many were understanding, some were not. “Through social media, I got a bit of backlash. But I was expecting that and it is nothing I couldn’t handle. Since I have been playing I have grown a very, very thick skin. For me it is water off a duck’s back.
“When I go across to the Hearts side of town I get a few comments, but at the same time I meet a lot of Hearts fans who have been good to me and have said: ‘You did great for us last year and we wish you all the best’. That’s nice to hear because I feel like I did do a job for them last year.”
Not bitter but still bemused, he feels he wasn’t the only one cast aside too early. In Keatings Hibs have signed a striker who has already weighed in with five goals from six starts, winning over the Easter Road crowds.
“He shows that if you do the business then there will be no hard feelings from the Hibs fans,” Eckersley added. “As long as you are fighting for the club and the badge, that’s all that matters. But I was surprised when he left Hearts. I knew he had one year left on his contract and it was a big shock to me but that is football, some strange decisions are made and, despite playing for many years, things still happen that I don’t understand.
“It’s the same with my own situation. I still remember the conversation with the gaffer and I can’t make heads nor tails of it, but it was his and the club’s decision. What still baffles me is the way they went about it; the way they told me. Right up to my final meeting they said: ‘You’re going to get a contract’ then on that Thursday I was told: ‘You’re not getting a contract’. But I’ve let that go now and have moved on. They obviously had someone in line and, a couple of months later, I found out they were getting a Nigerian internationalist.
“Even if they had let me go in a normal manner, I would still have had no problem crossing the divide.”
Having rejected moves to step up to the top flight Eckersley states that elevating Hibs to that level is now “a very good possibility”. Back in full training and finally feeling like his old self, he is ready to fight for a place in the team, excited to be part of a squad he says is arguably better than the Hearts one which romped last season’s Championship.
“This squad must have 23 or 24 good players, if they wanted to they could put out two different XIs which would make a good fist of things in this division. The strength in depth we have in the squad might even be more superior than last year, because we [Hearts] had a few young lads on the bench last year. Whereas, everyone here could come into the team and do a job.
“The recruiting Hibs have done has been very wise and smart. They have thought about every single player they have brought in. If one player gets injured, you are replacing a first-teamer with another player that can do a job at this level. That’s great for training as well, because you are pushing people in the same position for places. You know if you take the foot off the gas then someone is there to take your place.”
The match sharpness is still lacking, Eckersley says, but the desire, the leadership and the will to win that won over Hearts fans last term is still very much evident and if he makes the impact he hopes he can and Hibs keep pushing Rangers for the title, he may extend his contract beyond the turn of the year. “I am really enjoying my time here. The lads are great, the coaching staff are great and I am very excited to be part of this team because, obviously, they are doing so well just now. For me to sit here and say I will break into the team is difficult because they are going through such a good period. But, if they want to offer me something then I will look at it and if not, before I signed here I had plans to do other things.
“America is still in my thoughts and plans and has been since I was about 25. My little brother was there, playing for NY Red Bulls and Toronto and he absolutely loved it, and I have always had a little thing where I wouldn’t mind trying that. But I’m here now and they have been helpful in getting my knee straight and a lot of clubs wouldn’t have signed a player whose knee was still pretty banged up so I am grateful and that’s why I’m saying that my thoughts are not past January. I’m a Hibs player and that’s the case until January.”