Effervescent McManus gets a lucky break at last

AFTER their turbulent start to the season, Hibs have had a happier time in recent months. Challenging for a place in Europe rather than struggling to evade a place in the First Division, they are again playing with a real relish for the game.

No-one epitomises that attitude more than Tam McManus.

The 21-year-old striker missed most of last season after breaking his leg, and at the start of this campaign his first-team opportunities were limited. Now, though, he is getting a run in the team, and becoming a regular on the scoresheet - facts which only enhance his natural exuberance.

While many of his fellow-professionals conduct themselves with a studied seriousness, McManus has always shown an awareness that football is something you play. It’s work, in the sense that you have to try and you get paid for it, but it is also a game.

That attitude has stood McManus in good stead, not only on the field but during his lengthy convalescence. It is easy, following a bad injury, to succumb to brooding and self-pity, but McManus drew strength from his natural optimism.

"When I got my injury I was playing well, and I was getting in the team under Franck Sauzee," he recalled. "It was unfortunate that I broke my leg, but I’m quite an upbeat person and that helped me get over it."

Having grown up in Balornock then Bishopbriggs, McManus’s footballing allegiances were to one of the Glasgow giants. There was, however, a hint in his childhood as to his future destination.

"Believe it or not I had a Hibs strip when I was younger," he explained. "I think it was P&D Windows or P&O Ferries or something like that. I was a Celtic fan - I think it was just because it was green and white that I got the Hibs strip."

His interest then in the Edinburgh club may have been tangential, but it has long played a more central part in his life. Barely a quarter of the way through a five-year contract, McManus is settled at Easter Road, to the extent of joking that he will soon merit an award for long service.

"I’ve been at Easter Road since I was 16. When this contract ends I’ll be due a testimonial. It’s good Hibs have shown faith in me, and I feel very fortunate."

He was probably very fortunate to miss out on some of the club’s early matches, even though he did so because Bobby Williamson preferred other strikers. Four games were lost on the trot, and then, just after a win at Motherwell had made it look as if Hibs had turned the corner, came the worst performance of the lot.

"We lost five of our first six games and were getting a lot of stick from everyone," McManus recalled. "We were told we were getting relegated and stuff like that, and when we lost 4-1 at home to Dunfermline a few ex-players said it was the worst Hibs team they’d ever seen.

"But you work hard, and the gaffer kept on at us that we’re good players and we just had to show it.

"When we went to Parkhead and got beat 1-0 but played well, that gave us a bit of pride back and we took it from there.

"Once we got a couple of results we just had to keep going. To be where we are now after that start is tremendous."

Hibs’ revival is also a vindication of Williamson’s stance. The manager was sure the players were better than those early results suggested, and he stuck by them, convinced that it was calmness, not panic measures, which would see the team improve.

"There wasn’t much wrong, to be honest," Williamson said yesterday. "It’s just believing that everything you’re doing is right."

And, of course, communicating that belief to his players. Certainly, Paul Fenwick shares the manager’s view as to what has made the difference.

"Probably confidence," said the Canadian defender. "There’s not a tremendous difference between the teams outside of the Old Firm, so confidence is such a big factor. Why you have it and why it disappears I don’t know."

Nor does McManus, because, according to his gaffer, it has never disappeared from his footballing make-up. "I don’t know if he’s ever been lacking in confidence," Williamson said. "His problem is that his stamina is not as high as some players. But he has got that burst of pace that makes him different from most strikers and we have to play to his strengths and hope that he’ll continue to score goals for us. We’re pleased with the way he’s been performing recently, and the more games he gets under his belt the stronger he’ll become.

"It’s difficult to improve on stamina during the course of the season because you want to make sure players are fit enough for the games on a Saturday. He’s sharp enough. He’s still a kid, and once he’s had a few pre-seasons under his belt that will help make him stronger.

"He picks up injuries, and that doesn’t help his cause. But Tam’s an intelligent boy and he knows what he’s got to do to keep improving. There’s no doubt he’s a quality player."

With Paco Luna back in the squad for the short trip to Livingston, Williamson is beginning to have more options up front again, and the imminent return from injury of Garry O’Connor will also put pressure on McManus. Not that it will show. A chipper character like young Tam will simply keep on enjoying his football, and doing his best to help his team-mates do the same.