Ivan the Sensational

Ivan Sproule is the NI footballer making history with Hibs, writes Michael Nicholas

Castlederg’s Ivan Sproule has come a long way in the space of two seasons. Transferring to Scottish side Hibs from Institute in March 2005 for just £5000, his rise has been nothing less than sensational.

The 25-year-old came to prominence after scoring the goal which effectively blew the Scottish Premier League title wide open.

The Co Tyrone flying machine was sprung off the bench against Celtic, and with the sides deadlocked at 1-1, he pounced on a loose ball and rifled it past Celtic 'keeper David Marshall on 71 minutes. The goal effectively ended Celtic’s title ambitions and handed Hibs their first victory at Parkhead in 13 years.

Ivan SprouleIn August 2005, on the other side of the Old Firm, Sproule hit the headlines again after he scored a stunning 23-minute hat-trick against Rangers, the first by a Hibs player at Ibrox in 103 years.

Less than a week later, Sproule was called into the Northern Ireland squad and came on as a substitute in the shock 1-0 triumph over England in a World-Cup Qualifier at Windsor Park.

Against Estonia on March 1, Sproule struck after barely 77 seconds to grab what proved to be the only goal of the night on his full international debut, which helped Northern Ireland to their first friendly win at home in over eight years.

The flying winger is hungry for more international goals after netting on his debut for his country.

‘It was nice to get it,' he says. 'You don’t often get goals as early in games, or with your first touch, but it was nice to get it on my first start.’

Northern Ireland boss Lawrie Sanchez believes Sproule has a big international career ahead of him, and can help bring the crowds back to Windsor Park.

‘The fans love someone like Ivan. They love quick wingers and unpredictable players, and Ivan is one of those. I’m sure he'll be entertaining fans for years to come.’

Ivan SprouleSproule came late to professional football. He spent his early days at Dergview, Omagh Town and Institute, combining football with his full-time career as an engineer. He was invited by Hibs for a trial in January 2005, in which he impressed manager Tony Mowbray. Sproule immediately signed a year-long deal with the Edinburgh club.

But, weeks after his move to Scotland, the player had been on the verge of quitting due to homesickness. Sproule revealed it took him a while to adjust to the lifestyle of playing professional football.

‘It was nothing to do with football or anything else, just the fact that I was not settling down. It wasn’t easy for me to move away from my home and to give up all that I did. It was hard for me to accept coming home at 2pm, sitting down and having the rest of the day to myself.

'I was used to working until six or seven and then going to training. My life changed dramatically. That was the biggest hurdle, not the football.

After receiving words of wisdom from Mowbray and support from relatives, Sproule stayed on in the Scottish capital.

'I had a good talk with Tony, and my family was telling me to stick it out. I gave it another go and I see now that there's a great chance for me. The rewards are there if you work hard enough.’

Sproule was thrilled with his contract extension, something that will see him staying at the Easter Road until 2009. He readily admits to a ‘soft spot’ for the Hibs fans.

‘I was delighted to have my contract extended and I am now well settled in Edinburgh. The club and the fans have been good to me since I got here and it's nice to repay them and do well for them.

Ivan Sproule'To be honest, I don't think I could ever move anywhere else. If I did move on to another club I don't think I would be as well respected by the fans and by the people as I am here.

'I live in Leith so I am really in the heart of it all, right in the middle of the supporters. If I nip down to the shop people are always saying hello or passing comment. The first thing they want to chat about is the football and that's great, it’s nice to know that people are looking out for you and asking how you're getting on.’

Mowbray believes he has pulled off a coup by persuading Sproule to extend his contract.

‘He's still learning the game at this level, but he knows that and is listening hard as to how we can get him on the ball,' the manager says. 

'I think he can be a big star. He has devastating pace and can get into areas where he can do damage and hurt teams. His game is really starting to develop.’

Looking forward, Sproule believes that the experiences of this year will stand him in good stead.

'I'll be back with a full pre-season under my belt. I'll be a lot stronger and hopefully we'll see the best of me next season. I've played in a Scottish Cup semi-final, I've scored against Celtic at Parkhead - a goal which will stay with me for the rest of my life, as it was my first as a professional.’

Sproule can now look back on how he gave up a ‘safe’ job in Belfast to pursue his dream of becoming a professional player.

‘If you had told me this time last year I'd be playing for Hibs, that I'd have scored against Celtic and a hat-trick against Rangers, as well as scoring on my international debut, I'd have told you to go and get your head examined!’