Andy McNeil excited by return to Easter Road shop window

FOOTBALL can be a game of snakes and ladders and often circumstances will deposit a player back where they started, or worse.

Andy McNeil has endured this with the forbearance that can only impress those who believe that goalkeeping is a test of mental rigour as much as anything else. The Montrose player has seen his career hit a slump but senses an opportunity to show what he can do when he returns to play former club Hibernian in the Scottish Cup fifth round next month.

McNeil is just one of a few recent Hibs goalkeepers to have suffered the yips at Easter Road. High- profile mistakes, most ruinously against Hearts, saw him fail to establish himself at the club, although he was not alone in this. The duties were transferred between McNeil, Zbigniew Malkowski, Simon Brown and Yves Makalambay as a succession of managers tried and failed to settle on an undisputed No1.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

McNeil, a boyhood Hibs fan and former pupil at Leith Academy, was released by Mixu Paatelainen at the end of last season. With more than 40 Scottish Premier League games under his belt and a League Cup medal to his name, he had every right to expect another opportunity with a full-time club. But the call did not come.

"When I spoke to people at the end of last season they were all saying: 'You will get something no bother'," he recalled. "I was not very proactive trying to get a club – I thought someone would just phone me up, offer me lots of money and then we would be away. I am not going to lie, it's been hard."

He eventually landed the chance to don the gloves again at a level where he has been able to see plenty of action – the bottom of the Third Division. He acknowledged this might seem like an alarming fall from grace, although it has also been a lifeline for the 22-year-old. He has not been permitted to bring any airs or graces to his work at a club who are still without a single league victory this season. But relief has come in the Scottish Cup. Montrose's hard-fought win at Edinburgh City on Monday night, in the glaur of the Commonwealth Stadium, saw them secure a lucrative tie at Hibs in the fifth round. No-one in their side is more determined to distinguish himself at Easter Road than McNeil.

"It's has been difficult for me," he admitted yesterday. "The Commonwealth Stadium is one of the better grounds I have played at this year. You go to some places and there are stands with less than 100 people in them. Easter Road is where I feel like I belong, and I am not just saying that because it is Hibs. It's an SPL ground, there will be thousands of people there and we will be playing against top players. That's what I feel my talents deserve. "

He admitted that he feels there is some unfinished business for him at Easter Road, although he returns without bitterness.

"I don't want to hold grudges," he said. "The management team has changed so often there that it made it difficult for a lot of players. Think back to the team which won the League Cup final. How many boys played on Saturday (against Dundee United] who also played in the League Cup final? Not many, and that was less than three years ago. I am not saying I was a victim of circumstances or anything. I am not trying to make excuses. I am just happy to go back and play a top fixture."

McNeil has already begun to cause some anxiety among Hibs fans who fully expect him to take advantage of the chance to prove himself again at Easter Road, where, it must not be forgotten, he enjoyed many highlights too.

"People forget you when you don't play," he said. "I hadn't played at Hibs since the start of last December, over a year ago. People forget about your qualities and sometimes just remember the negative things. Playing week in and week out for Montrose and playing against Hibs will hopefully raise my profile again, and people will realise why I had got into such a good position early on in my career."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He assured Montrose fans he won't be looking to make saves just for the sake of the cameras next month.

"First and foremost I want my team to do well; it's not going to be the Andy McNeil show to the detriment of the team," he said. "But obviously it's a chance for all the boys to show what they can do."