Hibs will wrap their arms around Kevin Nisbet as he deals with the death of his hero
Looking back, it is hard to imagine the thoughts and feelings that scurried through Kevin Nisbet’s head as he prepared himself for a penalty kick that everyone knew would, most likely, have a massive bearing on whether Hibs or capital rivals Hearts progressed to the 2020 Scottish Cup final.
A hugely-significant moment in a football sense but, in the wider context, it had, just days earlier, in devastating fashion, been given perspective.
Missing a penalty is nothing compared to losing someone special, especially when that loved one is someone who has helped foster your passion and ambitions and shared in your development; someone you describe as your hero as well as your dad.
So while opting to start the match may have been his way of dealing with his loss, an opportunity to feel close to a man who had been by his side throughout his football journey, and his chance to honour the promise made to his ailing dad who wanted him to play the semi, come what may, it also took guts to assume that emotional burden and then pile extra pressure on his own shoulders by stepping up to take the penalty.
But, on Monday, the 23-year-old striker spoke openly and bravely about his father’s battle with cancer, their final goodbye and the penalty, and he refused to use the former as an excuse for missing the latter.
Nisbet’s dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer before his son signed for Hibs and he was a proud observer as Nisbet worked tirelessly on his fitness through lockdown, determined to keep a career that they had both put so much effort into, on track.
When Nisbet signed for Hibs he wanted his personal circumstances kept quiet, even from many of his team-mates, insisting that immersing himself in training and in games for a few hours each day helped him cope.
There was still support there, from his manager Jack Ross and the coaching staff, from the few players who were aware and the likes of Sporting Director Graeme Mathie and Chief Executive Leeann Dempster.
Now that it is all in the open, he will feel the arms of the entire club around him, though.
As a club, Hibs have a reputation for looking after their players’ welfare. Even in recent history, under the stewardship of former chairman Rod Petrie there was a willingness to give help and second chances to wayward stars like Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan and Anthony Stokes, amongst others, as they fought their private demons.
Then there was the situation that accelerated Neil Lennon’s departure as manager, when the club acted on the duty of care they felt towards young Florian Kamberi and stepped in when they believed a line had been crossed.
Within the current set-up that support network extends further, to the close knit staff operating out of the East Mains training ground. But, inevitably, the men he works closest with will be his biggest crutch.
Christian Doidge has taken his young strike partner under his wing, and the assists are there off the pitch as well as on.
David Gray was seen offering comfort at the end of Saturday’s game, while fellow club ambassador Darren McGregor has been a rock for his young team-mate. Having lost his own dad to cancer at a young age, he knows what Nisbet is going through and understands that football can be an escape.
The striker, who rushed to be with his his dad straight from training on Tuesday, did not miss a single training session in the derby build-up and that ongoing, albeit, fleeting escape from the painful reality faced by many families in such troubled times, will be the biggest fillup the club can afford their leading striker.
Sympathy and respect
With eight goals in 14 appearances, Nisbet has delivered the kind of all-round performances that belied his private, family anguish.
On top of the goals, the overall play has earned him plaudits and that was before people learned of his personal tumult. With so many games under his belt in such difficult circumstances, it is no surprise he took to the field at Hampden, no shock that his manager trusted him to still deliver.
But it means it is now almost impossible to look back without viewing that penalty miss as salt being rubbed into wounds or feeling a huge amount of sympathy and respect for the Hibs man.
The character shown at the time and the manner he has handled himself since is a compliment to the way his dad raised him.
An impressively-driven youngster, hellbent on making the best of his talent and going as far as possible in the sport, his dad’s death is likely to bring greater intensity to their shared dream.
“Dad’s been the driving force behind how I’ve been playing in the last few months. Not just because he’s my hero and I wanted to do it for him, but because he’s always believed in me. Ever since I first kicked a ball,” said the player, in an interview with the club website.
That love, support, and inspiration has taken Nisbet to the cusp of a Scotland call-up. He missed out on the latest squad but if/when that day does comes, he will be able to dedicate the achievement to the memory of his hero and thank him for helping him scale the heights.
“When I had a couple of setbacks earlier in my career and things weren’t going to plan, he never lost faith in me. He never stopped encouraging me. He just wanted me to be happy and make the most of myself.”
While one can only imagine the thoughts and emotions running through Nisbet’s mind before and after Saturday’s penalty kick, as he continues to chase his dreams, you can bet those words of encouragement and demonstrations of faith from his hero will be replayed time and again.
For now, let’s hope they bring him some solace.
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