The road to Hampden swiftly became a nightmare for Paul Cairney. In the searing heat of Sotogrande, he embarks on the road to redemption.
The 25-year-old endured a miserable time as Hibs produced a catastrophic first-half showing against Falkirk in the Scottish Cup semi-final in April, as Pat Fenlon’s side left the field to a cacophony of jeers with the First Division side leading 3-0.
The former Partick Thistle midfielder did not emerge for the second period, with his replacement, Eoin Doyle, among the scorers as Hibs engineered a miraculous comeback.
Utterly despondent, he watched the resurrection of the club’s Scottish Cup dream in silence from the dressing-room. Cairney has not seen a minute of competitive football since. He was not even in the match-day squad for the 3-0 defeat to Celtic in the final.
Although diminutive in stature, he is big enough to shoulder responsibility for his part in Hibs’ worst 45 minutes of football last season.
“I was absolutely dreadful,” said. “It was a horrific day at the office, I caused the three goals. It was a horrible feeling. I let the fans down, I let myself down and I definitely let the gaffer down.”
The Hampden horror-show was undoubtedly the lowest point in a season of gradual decline for Cairney.
He began his career in Edinburgh in fine fashion after signing a two-year deal from the Jags last summer, making a capable home debut in August’s derby clash with Hearts and scoring a fine individual effort against Celtic in a hugely credible 2-2 draw in Glasgow.
But he has struggled for form and fitness in 2013, having endured what he describes as a “steep learning curve” over the past 12 months.
Moving from his family home in Glasgow to Edinburgh proved to be an uncomfortable upheaval initially, while he acknowledges that his fitness regime away from the club was not necessarily all it could have been. But Cairney insists he has returned for a new campaign as a new man.
“I wanted to show the gaffer that I was not finished playing for Hibs,” he explained.
Speaking from the club’s warm weather training camp, Cairney does indeed cut a svelte figure.
He had a stark choice over the summer: accept the prospect of becoming Hibs’ forgotten man or show the desire to fulfil his undoubted talent. The former Queen’s Park favourite is adamant he has chosen the latter.
“I only took a week off during the summer, then I was back working hard,” he continued.
“I love it here, and I have come back in better shape and with a better attitude. I have reported for pre-season looking slimmer and fitter and now it is about getting game-time because I missed a lot of football.
“I have learned my lessons. I was out of the team completely and I have to see last season as a learning curve.”
He may be acing the fitness tests, but Cairney’s priority now lies with convincing Fenlon that his absence from the first-team has not blunted the potency of a player who scored 20 goals in three years for Thistle.
The player has not completed 90 minutes for Hibs since February 24 and tonight’s friendly against a Gibraltar XI at Victoria Stadium will be another vital opportunity to re-find his sharpness.
And, although he does not appear to need any added incentive, the presence of Partick Thistle in the SPFL Premiership next season is a tantalising prospect. The trip to Firhill on October 5 is already circled on the calendar. “I really enjoyed my time there and I still keep in contact with a lot of the boys over at Firhill,” added Cairney. “I would love to be involved when we go back there.
“Archie (Alan Archibald) has done a great job there – I always knew he had the qualities to be a gaffer – and I’m sure they will adapt well to coming up. Hopefully I would get a nice reception going back.”