Ex-Hibs man McCluskey looks to future with old mates

FORMER Hibs star Jamie McCluskey has returned to his roots in a bid to kickstart his career following "the worst year in my life".

The little winger reluctantly quit Easter Road after what he diplomatically describes as "a difference of opinion" with ex-boss John Collins, and stepped down to the First Division with St Johnstone when his contract expired.

But what he hoped would be a fresh start turned into a nightmare as he broke his right foot twice in the space of a few months, the injuries restricting him to a mere three games for the Saints. Now, however, the 20-year-old has jumped at the chance to rejoin his old Hibs team-mates at their impressive new training centre as he makes the final push to regaining full fitness and, hopefully, a new club.

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McCluskey has struck a "no strings attached" agreement with Hibs boss Mixu Paatelainen to use the facilities at the 5million state-of-the-art complex where he has found midfield ace Merouane Zemmama for company as the Moroccan also recovers from an identical injury, a broken metatarsal.

A season which was to end with Hibs lifting the CIS Insurance Cup began so well with McCluskey claiming his only goal for the club as they began their march on Hampden with a 4-0 win over Peterhead.

However, it was to end in acrimony as he and Collins fell out leading to him deciding to leave last summer despite the attempts of others to persuade him otherwise with the offer of a new deal on the table.

Other than to reveal he felt he wasn't getting the game time he felt he merited, McCluskey refused to go into further details other than to say: "The two of us did not really get on and we had words.

"I'd been offered a new contract and, to be fair, Rod Petrie (Hibs chairman] gave me up to the last minute. But I felt I had to go, I felt bridges had been burned and that I wouldn't be happy coming in to training knowing I was in the bad books with the manager."

Even so, it was a tough decision for McCluskey to make. He said: "The fans were brilliant with me and I loved being at the club. I've matured a bit over the past year and I know I wouldn't do what I did again.

"But these things happen and you learn from your mistakes."

As hard as it was to break the ties, McCluskey was delighted when Saints boss Owen Coyle stepped in to take him to McDiarmid Park only for his joy to quickly turn to despair.

He said: "I played the first three games of the season, picked up an ankle injury and as I was recovering from it I broke my foot in training. It was a freak accident, not even a tackle.

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"There was no-one near me as I cut in to take a shot at goal. Then at the end of January the same thing happened. I chased a ball into the corner, checked back and heard a wee pop."

McCluskey underwent an operation to insert a screw in his foot but declined the offer of a new deal with the Perth outfit, believing his move had brought him nothing but bad luck.

Now he believes he is only two weeks away from running and a month from kicking a ball again as he works out daily under the supervision of Hibs physio Colin McLelland.

He said: "Colin had told me that if I needed any advice to give him a phone. I think he had a word with the manager and I was invited to use the facilities at the training ground.

"It's been a fantastic gesture from Hibs. It would have been very difficult for me to recover working on my own and, to be honest, it's been like coming home seeing all the boys again."

One McCluskey sees more of than any other is Zemmama, a close friend who, ironically, phoned to commiserate when he heard of his pal's injury only to suffer the exact same one in April. McCluskey said: "Zouma was one of my best friends when I was here and he was on the phone whenever he heard I'd been hurt. It's a great shame the same thing happened to him because he was flying at the time.

"But at least we can console each other. We are about the same stage so we keep each other company and I'm sure we'll get through this together."

McCluskey revealed he has "a few irons in the fire" for when he's fully recovered but insisted there was no understanding between himself and Hibs, accepting that the club has moved on with new faces having arrived.

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He said: "Mixu and the club have been brilliant but there's nothing been said. Basically all I want to do is get over this injury, prove my fitness and I'll see what happen from there. I'm still only 20 and I hope I have many more years in the game to improve."