Alan Pattullo: Derek Riordan returns to Hampden

THE game of football is littered with lost boys. Those once reckoned to have had it all, and yet who, for various reasons, are playing at a level deemed unworthy of their talents.

Derek Riordan celebrates scoring East Fife's winner last week. Picture: Contributed

You needed only to have been walking around Peffermill last weekend to spot a member of this breed panting around the Edinburgh University grounds in the colours of Selkirk. But forget the lowly status, at least Garry O’Connor is still playing the game, something Derek Riordan, we feared, had abandoned all thoughts of ever doing again.

So surely we have to celebrate the news he has signed for East Fife until the end of the season, following a three-game spell where he was listed as A. Trialist on the team sheet. This cloak of anonymity didn’t really count for much in the case of Riordan, who is instantly recognisable as a poster-boy for pissing it all away.

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Last weekend’s goal for East Fife against Annan Athletic – he has since scored another, against Elgin City – was his first in British football for nearly four years. His last strike came in his last game for Hibs against Aberdeen in May 2011. Let that sink in. Riordan is now 32 years-old and still here we are, clinging to the hope that somehow, maybe one day, he’ll salvage something of the old magic, the old possibilities. For we remember when he was once among Scottish football’s brightest stars. Liable to do something stupid, yes. But also liable to curl a deliciously placed free-kick into the top corner.

Derek Riordan celebrates scoring East Fife's winner last week. Picture: Contributed

Surely Scottish football is not so awash with talent that it can’t find a place for such a player. But by the same token, surely Riordan is not still so deluded as to believe he can step straight back into the top flight without first having to earn his spurs again. Thankfully, his decision to sign a short-term contract for East Fife suggests the penny has dropped, finally. Those of us still interested in this ballad of a feckless footballer will follow his progress with fascination.

So this morning, Riordan will again be looking out his football boots. He should not take this thrill for granted. After all, former Hibs midfielder Owain Tudor Jones, who yesterday confirmed he has retired from the game through injury at the age of just 30, would give a lot to be able to do this just once more.

It makes Riordan’s recent record seem even more of a wretched waste. Fit and able, he has flitted around a twilight zone of trial periods at lower league clubs, while never seeming quite committed to the idea of rebooting his career in such surroundings. But perhaps today, in the spacious away dressing room of Hampden Park, he can be persuaded that this is a stage where he belongs. It is here where he can pretend the few hundred souls watching Queen’s Park v East Fife are really a throng of 50,000 Scotland fans, hailing the fourth-cap-that-never-came.

Riordan made just three international appearances, the last of which was a late cameo in a bleak 3-0 defeat by Wales in Cardiff in 2009.

This call-up came while he was settling back into life at Hibs after a period at Celtic defined by lack of activity. While he didn’t quite recapture his former glories, he still scored 40 goals in this second spell, including his 100th strike for the club. It saw him become the first Hibs players to reach that figure for over 30 years. But then, when he was not offered the deal he felt he deserved, he made an ill-fated move to China.

Not that Riordan hung around long there; quickly tiring of the loneliness, the “weird” food, the fines for such seemingly innocuous crimes as swearing, he packed his bags and returned home, settling into an existence that seemed to consist of playing golf with his mates and getting banned from Edinburgh nightclubs. Interspersed among these activities were sporadic spells on trial at football clubs, which, from memory, included Ross County, Dumbarton, Kilmarnock, Blackpool, MK Dons and Livingston. It all felt spectacularly low-rent.

So where better to re-launch a career than at Hampden, where he hasn’t played since a Scottish Cup semi-final victory for Celtic eight years ago against St Johnstone (summing up Riordan’s career at Parkhead under manager Gordon Strachan, he was an unused substitute in the win over Dunfermline in the final).

Some doubted whether Riordan would agree to stay on at East Fife, who are currently sitting fourth in League 2. After all, hadn’t he declined to sign for Brechin City, currently riding high in League 1, because he felt he did not belong at that level? Either that or he’d discovered Flicks nightclub, once “Scotland’s premier nite spot”, had in fact closed many years ago.

Of course, it’s easy to sneer, and many do. Riordan is just a ned, they say, who didn’t have the wit to know how to maximise his talent. He is a conundrum wrapped up in an enigma inside a shell-suit

There is the fear that we will learn in the coming weeks of some unwelcome distraction, or that he has gone AWOL.

Perhaps he will decide that he didn’t miss the game enough to want to get his shins bruised on a weekly basis by tough-tackling fourth-tier standard defenders. But it must say something for his talent, unfulfilled or not, that many still harbour hopes the lovable rogue can come good again.