HIBERNIAN defender James McPake has put himself in contention for a dramatic derby-day comeback against Hearts after scoring in his first match in six months – although he had earlier netted an own goal, too.
The former Easter Road skipper played the full 90 minutes for Hibs under-20s on Tuesday evening against Dunfermline at East End park and netted a late equaliser in a 3-3 draw.
There is little doubt the capital club would rather ease the 29-year-old into top-team action gradually following back surgery.
Merely featuring before the end of the season had been the original target set for his return. However, with central defender Paul Hanlon out for the season and Hibs toiling miserably on a run of nine games without a win, McPake’s determination and leadership qualities may bring him into manager Terry Butcher’s thoughts ahead of Sunday’s Easter Road showdown with Hearts.
McPake last featured for the first team on 23 October, ironically in another encounter against Hearts. He was shown a red card as Pat Fenlon’s men were defeated 1-0 at home in the League Cup – a result which ultimately proved the final straw in the Irishman’s reign at Easter Road.
Following his return to action, the Northern Ireland international tweeted: “First 90 in six months in the tank! Felt good to be back out there on a pitch.”
McPake went under the knife in December in a bid to finally cure a persistent back complaint, and his rehabilitation has included warm-weather training in Dubai and use of a state-of-the-art anti-gravity treadmill.
With the club hopeful the injury – which kept him out of the 2013 Scottish Cup final against Celtic – is cured, he is closing in on his first appearance under Butcher.
Butcher has confirmed he is eagerly monitoring the return to full fitness of McPake and midfielder Scott Robertson, but insists the final decision regarding whether they will be in a position to feature against Hearts will come down to the club’s medical staff.
Speaking after Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at St Mirren, which left the Hibees just three points above a relegation play-off place, Butcher said: “I don’t like to gamble on players’ fitness.
“If you ask a player to play, he will say ‘yes’, so you don’t let them decide. We’ll speak to the doctors, the physios and, if need be, specialists.”
Meanwhile, Hearts will be roared on by over 3,600 supporters during Sunday’s derby at Easter Road after selling out their entire away allocation.
The last few remaining tickets were snapped up yesterday morning following a public sale.
The relegated Tynecastle outfit head into the game knowing that a fourth win over their city rivals this season would deepen Hibs’ woes as they try to avoid a play-off and potentially joining Hearts in dropping to the Championship.
Hearts have already beaten Hibs twice in the league this season, in addition to coming out on top at Easter Road with that League Cup win in October.