BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Suffice to say the path from Borough Briggs to Brondby is not a well worn one.
After lying in a hospital bed with a lacerated kidney and his career hanging in the balance, Hibernian goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw can rightly look back on that journey with a great deal of pride.
The 24-year-old was a shock selection by Neil Lennon for Thursday’s Europa League encounter against the Danish giants, replacing the nervy Otso Virtanen, whose error in the first leg would ultimately cost Hibs the tie.
It was Laidlaw’s first appearance since joining the club from Raith Rovers in the summer.
Moreover, it was his first competitive outing at any level since April 2015, when he represented Elgin, on loan from the Fifers, in a 5-4 defeat against Annan.
Having returned to Stark’s Park to fight for his place following his stint up north, the young custodian suffered a serious injury in a freak training ground collision which ended his season and saw his future in the game put in genuine jeopardy.
How heartening it was, then, to see him turn in a fine display against Brondby, making super saves to deny Johan Larsson and Christian Norgaard as Hibs won 1-0 on the night, only to exit the Europa League on penalties.
“My last game was against Annan when I went out on loan to Elgin because I was second choice at Raith,” reflected Laidlaw. “I came back for pre-season and played a couple of bounce games but, competitively, that was my last game before Brondby.
“It was a big difference playing at Borough Briggs compared to Brondby!
“I was out [injured] from December 2015 and didn’t get the all-clear to play until the end of last season. Then I found out Hibs were interested in me and I wanted to come here.
“But I didn’t play a single game last year, either through the kidney injury or sitting on the bench behind Kevin Cuthbert.
“Of course there was a feeling that, with the severity of the injury, I might never get back to play football.
“It took six months to get back and thankfully I’m fit again and playing. My main aim was just to get fit, be training every day and hopefully get a chance to do myself justice.
“I got an elbow in the stomach in training – just innocuous – and I thought I had cracked a rib, but I went to hospital and it turned out I had torn my kidney and I was kept in hospital.
“It was really serious and I don’t think I realised how bad it was at the time.”
Given Copenhagen was the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, a fairytale ending – perhaps Laidlaw saving the decisive penalty to send the Hibees through – would have seemed appropriate. But it was not to be.
Instead, the otherwise excellent John McGinn saw his effort saved by Frederik Ronnow and Brondby prevailed 5-3.
Nevertheless, the magnitude of Laidlaw’s comeback should not be underestimated, nor should the nerve required to perform so ably in front of a hostile home crowd after only being informed of his starting place a few hours before kick-off.
“I wasn’t really expecting to play the game,” he admitted. “But obviously I got the chance and I’m just delighted I did well for the team. The boys in front of me were different class.
“The gaffer told me I was playing on Thursday afternoon, he just gave me a heads-up then the assistant Parksy (Garry Parker) spoke to me just before the game because obviously the gaffer wasn’t allowed to do it.
“He just said ‘you’re playing tonight. Just relax, take it easy the first 15, 20 minutes’ and I’m glad I did that. We’re really disappointed we go out on penalties. I thought we were the better team probably over the two legs but it was a great experience.”
Laidlaw also sought to provide some solace for Virtanen, who will hope his ill-fated first appearance for Hibs is not also his last.
Laidlaw added: “Otso has great qualities as a goalkeeper. Remember, he’s a Finnish under-21 internationalist. I know he’ll be disappointed at not starting, but he’ll be determined to still make his mark at the club.”