Garry O'Connor keen to spread prodigal sunshine on Leith at 'the only team I wanted'

AS YOUNGSTERS, they appeared inextricably linked, progressing through the ranks at boyhood heroes Hibernian almost hand-in-hand while matching each other goal-for-goal.

However, their latest moves in careers that have since suffered their fair share of setbacks, on and off the pitch, could not be any more different.

Often described by team-mates as the best finisher they have seen, Derek Riordan spoke recently of how his shock move to Chinese football with Shaanxi Chanba had been fuelled by a rare desire to hit the bar, but this time for a quiet pint. Banned from every nightclub in Edinburgh, the striker, who returned to Hibs after failing to make the grade at Celtic, was bored with the SPL and frustrated with life in the capital.

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But it is that very same city, its familiarity and homeliness, that Garry O'Connor, for a long time Riordan's attacking foil, has felt drawn back to at the moment his friend has opted for something fresh.

O'Connor's 1.6 million transfer to Lokomotiv Moscow in 2006, at the age of just 22, may, with hindsight, have come too early in his career, but it still made him a wealthy young man in a little over 15 months in the cash-rich Russian game. With his subsequent move to Birmingham City being spoiled by injuries, the summer arrived with the 28-year-old seeking a new club and new direction.

Although a shadow was cast by his arrest on drugs charges, he insists there was just one destination he craved.

"Were there any thoughts that this might not be the right place for me to come back to? Definitely not," he said. "I've been away now for five, five and a half years, and it was the right place for me to come to.

"I missed my family and that was the main aspect of signing for Hibs again, the boyhood club I supported - just to get the chance again at a club I had done so well at. It was back to my roots and to kick-start my career again, basically. Once I got the call and made a few contacts with Hibs it was all done very fast. We shook hands and that was it. I was delighted and my family were delighted I was back up the road.

"Deeks (Riordan] had been here for a period of time. That meant it was time for him to get out. But I've been down south for a period of time and in Russia, and it was time for me to come back."

It would probably have come as no surprise to O'Connor that his second debut for Hibs would come against Celtic this afternoon. The Scotland cap spent time training with Neil Lennon's outfit after his early release by Barnsley at the tail end of last term. It was a short spell, but one which he reveals reinvigorated him and, with his usual summer jaunts up and down Arthur's Seat, helped prepare him for his return to Easter Road.

"Lenny was really good, he's a top man," he added. "He's like one of the boys there, he still trains with them and I've got the utmost respect for the guy. It was great, the facilities are fantastic and it got me ticking over, so I was happy with that.""My agent is Neil's agent as well, so it was just sorted out over dinner. I finished early with Barnsley and I was sitting doing nothing, really, so it was just an opportunity to go and train and have a little look and see what was about.

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"It was good in giving me a boost. I knew a lot of the Celtic players and it was good to be about them and get the banter again.

"You want to be training every day and it's hard when you're training yourself. It's a lonely place sometimes, so it was good to get training.

"It does get the passion back into you.

"I enjoyed my time at Celtic. It was really good but there was only one team I wanted to sign for and that was Hibs.

"It's a massive test for Hibs on Sunday and, if we come out of the game with any sort of result, it's a massive result for us."

O'Connor's return, along with that of pacy wideman Ivan Sproule, has added some excitement to a build-up to the new season that has been dominated by fevered speculation surrounding the future of Colin Calderwood.

A defiant statement from chairman Rod Petrie of the club's intent to hang on to their manager has not been enough to temper Calderwood's original admission that a return south of the Border with either Birmingham City or former club Nottingham Forest would be of interest to him.

However, the former Scotland defender remains in place, for the meantime at least, and is determined to approach kick-off today with refreshed optimism following the bitter disappointment of May's tenth-place finish.

"We'll start the season hopefully with no hangover from last year, nothing hanging on the players' coat-tails," he said, while denying that uncertainty over his own position had affected his squad in any way.

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"We want early wins and early good performances. That'll wash that memory away from (the supporters]. Ideally that's what you want.

"We'll have to improve. I think there will be a marked difference at the start of this season from how they were when I worked with them in November."

Meanwhile, Calderwood has confirmed that youngster Sean Welsh had suffered "complications" with an infection following the operation to repair his cheekbone fractured in a training-ground fracas with team-mate Martin Scott, who was fined over the incident.

However, he revealed the 21-year-old is on the road to recovery following further facial surgery, and is six weeks away from a return.