Hibs’ first pre-season match may have come all too soon for most, but as far as Easter Road kid Sammy Stanton was concerned, the run-out against First Division Dumbarton couldn’t come quickly enough.
Sixteen minutes at the Bet Butler Stadium ended a five-month injury nightmare for the teenage midfielder, the most testing period of his fledgling career as he found himself on an emotional rollercoaster, delighted to see a clutch of his team-mates from the club’s Under-20 side begin to establish themselves in boss Pat Fenlon’s plans, but naturally green with envy as he recovered from a knee operation.
Ironically, Stanton suffered the injury having elected to go out on loan to Cowdenbeath in search of first-team football of his own, managing just two matches for the Fife outfit before being crocked.
Today, though, as he settled into Hibs’ warm weather training camp in the south of Spain, Stanton insisted he’d emerged from the tortuous experience strong both physically and mentally and ready to once again catch Fenlon’s eye, as have the likes of Danny Handling, Alex Harris, Ross Caldwell and Jordon Forster over the past few months.
Just one appearance as a substitute in the first half of last season convinced Stanton to make the January switch to Central Park, but while it didn’t turn out as hoped, he has adopted a philosophical approach to events by rightly arguing no-one could have foreseen how things turned out.
He said: “I wasn’t playing a lot of football for Hibs, so I wanted to go and play against men in a proper league. I enjoyed it for the short time I was there. I only managed two games for Cowdenbeath, so it was really disappointing.”
As he convalesced and began the gruelling journey back to full fitness, Stanton admits he watched Handling, Harris, Caldwell and Forster go on to play in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic unable to prevent himself from thinking “What if?”
He said: “I have asked myself that question a lot of times. If I had stayed at Easter Road might I have been involved as well? On the other hand, I might have stayed and something worse might have happened to me. You never know.
“It was a difficult time for me, difficult to watch those guys buzzing about, enjoying their football and having a cup final to look forward to. One half of me was delighted for them, the other half was jealous but what could I do, I was coming in each day and heading for the physio’s room.
“However, we are a tight bunch of boys, we’re all very close and good friends having been together for four or five years so while I was wishing it could have been me, I was also happy to see each of them take the opportunity, although it’s not quite the same when you are not part of it.
“But I’ve emerged from it most definitely stronger both physically and mentally. It was a long, long time out. It felt more like ten years than five months, but you have to get on with it. I think you almost take your football a bit for granted in a way until you have something like that happen to you. Then you realise how much you miss it and what you need to do to get where you want to be.
“I’m definitely stronger. I’ve shot up a few inches in height – I’m 6ft tall now – and I’ve also filled out thanks to the strengthening programme I followed.”
A confident if brief display at Dumbarton helped brighten Stanton’s mood even further, one shot clipping the bar as he ensured he got into the action. Fenlon had started the match with four teenagers with Bradley Donaldson joining Forster, Harris and Handling in the starting line-up, while Caldwell and Dean Horribine, like Stanton, made second-half appearances from the bench.
Stanton said: “I don’t think it’s a case of starting all over again. I believe you are always looking to catch the eye of the coaches and the manager, looking to improve in training every day and doing as well as you can when given the opportunity to play. It’s something all the boys are hoping to do.
“It was an early start for the boys, but having been out for so long I was just delighted to get back playing again. The fact we’ve got a European match in barely two week’s time is a huge carrot for us all. For most of us the Europa League is going to be a new experience, one we are looking forward to and want to enjoy as much as we can.”