Arbroath's Craig Wighton opens up on being exiled by Hearts - twice - as he looks to down Hibs in Scottish Cup

From the last-minute winner while still a teenager that helped condemn his boyhood team’s fiercest rivals to relegation to featuring in the first Scotland football team to beat Brazil. The argument Craig Wighton enjoyed too much, too young is a compelling one.

But then he reveals that he has only very recently passed his driving test at the fourth attempt. There was clearly a limit to his undoubted precociousness. Some subsequent bumps in the road might well have thwarted the ambitions of someone less resilient.

A 12-inch scar running down his left knee bears testimony to this. The ball hasn’t always run as favourably for him as when almost seeking out the corner of the net via a couple of nutmegs and the far post to confirm Dundee United’s relegation at Dens Park nearly six years ago. He was just 18.

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The seeming hubris involved in wearing the number 33 shirt previously sported by Claudio Caniggia was forgivable – and, indeed, seemed justified when he then helped Scotland Under 20s beat Brazil in the Toulon tournament 12 months later. A serious knee injury in a bounce game for Dundee v Bristol City shortly afterwards was an early sign that professional football doesn’t tend to give without extracting a payment in return.

Craig Wighton is now in his second spell with Arbroath and has yet to taste defeat. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

This is Wighton’s ninth season since becoming Dundee’s youngest-ever goalscorer as a 16-year-old in March 2014 against Raith Rovers. It seems as if he has been around forever. It is surprising to learn he is still only 24.

“I do feel older than I am, it’s why my hairline is like this!” he says, while bending to allow a closer inspection of his shorn head. “I’ve had good memories and some not so good memories. Hopefully I have still got a long period of my career to go as well.”

The near future is certainly alive with possibilities. He has the chance to make history over the coming weeks at Arbroath, where he is back on loan. He has yet to finish on the losing side in nine appearances at the club over two spells.

This lucky charm status is a further worry for Hibs as they prepare to face Scotland’s team of the moment and current Championship leaders in a Scottish Cup last 16 tie at blowy Gayfield this afternoon.

Hearts' Craig Wighton misses a penalty in the shoot out during the Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic in 2020. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

The last time Wighton faced Hibs was just last season in a delayed Scottish Cup semi-final. He scored the opener – his fifth goal in four games – in Hearts’ 2-1 win. Weeks later he learned in rather brutal fashion that he was being axed from the Tynecastle side’s first team – for a second time.

There was the small matter of a saved penalty in the Scottish Cup final shootout defeat to Celtic in between. Wighton was selected to take the fifth, potentially decisive penalty. Stephen Kingsley missing the preceding kick to pile the pressure on Wighton, who saw Conor Hazard palm his effort away. A fifth penalty taker did win the cup for his team. Sadly, it was Kris Ajer rather than Wighton.

“That is something that will haunt me, but I would rather step up and take one than not take one." he says. "It was one of those things. I can’t change it now. It is a fine line. Hopefully I will get the chance to play in one again.”

Robbie Neilson did not cast him aside immediately. Admirably, the manager made a point of phoning Wighton later that evening while the player was being driven home to Dundee by his girlfriend, Bex. “He said I had the bottle to step up and take one and I was to keep the head up. He said you’ve been a good player for us.”

Craig Wighton is mobbed by Dundee teammates after scoring the goal that relegated Dundee United in 2016.

It made what happened next even harder to comprehend. Wighton played just three further times for Hearts before being bombed out with little or no warning before a trip to face Alloa.

“I trained on a Friday as normal with the first team, when I had seen the manager. He had not said anything. Then on Friday afternoon the squad list went up on the squad group chat and I was not on it. That was strange. I had been on it before and then been left in the stand. This time I was not even travelling.

“I left it about an hour and then phoned my agent. He said: ‘look I’ve just had Robbie Neilson on the phone, you’re not in his plans. You can find something else'. I said: ‘I saw him this morning, he could have told me that and I would have accepted it’. On the Monday I was training with the reserves. It happened so quickly.”

He was at least well versed in such callous practice. “The same thing happened the year before with (Daniel) Stendel,” he explains. “I had been told I was not involved but it was Craig Levein - who had been sacked a few months before and was still at the club - who came to me and said: ‘you are not in the new manager’s plans.’ I never had a single conversation with him myself.”

Wighton already had his suspicions. Although he was picked to start Stendel’s second game in charge, against Celtic, the writing was on the wall. “He read the team out and called me Greg!” he recalls.

Wighton was an unused sub for the rest of the year and then, shortly after all the players attended club skipper Christophe Berra’s wedding, a group – headed by Berra himself – learned they were being exiled.

“Christophe was club captain, a legend at Hearts,” says Wighton. “Me being told was not a shock. I got injured and when I got in the team, I know I didn't play as well as I could. That's the biggest frustration of my time there.

"But he had played most games, was going well, fans loved him. It was out of the blue. I think for the manager not to have a conversation with someone who had done a lot for the club and say ‘I appreciate all you’ve’ done’ is not right. He deserved better.”

There is something pleasingly old school about Wighton. He eschews social media and keeps his head down – more so now that he and Bex have recently become parents to a daughter, Winnie. He even stayed around the corner from Tynecastle for a while and would walk to games with his boots in a bag slung over his shoulder, like a player from the 1950s.

A couple of interview requests this week has prompted mock scorn from manager Dick Campbell at training: ‘Who do you think you are? Me!?’ Mild mannered and polite, don’t mistake seeming diffidence for lack of desire. Wighton is driven - and right now he needs to be.

Moving to a part-time club on loan from Dunfermline means losing the structure of daily training. Arbroath train on Mondays and Wednesdays. When they meet at Gayfield today the players won’t have seen each other since the midweek 2-2 draw with Hamilton Accies. Campbell will read out the team and those selected will simply shake the mud from their boots and go again.

Wighton must maintain the discipline of a full-time footballer even though, temporarily, he isn’t one. Normally in these circumstances he would continue training with his parent club. However, the fact Arbroath are in the same division – and doing somewhat better than second bottom Dunfermline – has created an awkward situation. The Pars have requested that he stays away.

“If Dunfermline said come in and train, then I would do that, I would not be weird about that,” he says. “I think they just want to work with the boys they have going forward. They have a big job on their hands as well. I wish them all the best.”

There’s not an ounce of malice in Wighton. He doesn’t even seem minded to trade on his ‘Doon derby’ status – unless baited. One of the reasons Neilson brought him back into the fold at Hearts was the winner the manager saw him strike against his then Dundee United side for Arbroath two years ago.

“I was getting a fair bit of stick that day in the warm-up - one guy especially,” Wighton recalls. “That was obviously the Championship, so it was stuff like: ‘you’ve found your level!’. When I scored, I was desperate to go over. As it happened the subs were right there and grabbed me to celebrate so I couldn’t.”

As for Neilson, they’ll meet again – and Wighton will shake his hand. “I got on well with him when I was there. It was not a falling out. It was just a lack of communication in the end. It happens in football – and it probably won’t be the last time.”

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