AFTER four years at Doncaster Rovers, Sam Hird is no longer happy playing second fiddle.
The thrill of turning out for his home-town club will never fade but Hird is also aware that professional football is a short-lived career.
Hird is keen to be a regular in the Rovers shirt but is more often used to fill gaps by manager Sean O'Driscoll.
Going into the Christmas and New Year programme, he had started four of the previous five games but only because five defenders were out injured – James O'Connor, Wayne Thomas, Mustapha Dumbuya, George Friend and James Chambers.
His run in the first team would have been extended but for back-to-back postponements against Derby County and Ipswich Town – and now Hird is sweating over his selection for today's game against Scunthorpe United as others come back into contention.
Few players, of course, are lucky enough to get a guarantee of first team football and all clubs have 'squad' players whose versatility is invaluable in times of crisis. At 23, however, Hird has reached the stage where the need to play regularly is becoming an issue.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Hird said: "Since getting back into the team through injuries or form, I think I have done myself justice. But it's always a bit stop-start getting into the team and, it doesn't matter how well I have done, I have been dropped and others have been brought back in. Although I am still young, I am not a kid any more and I want to be playing games.
"In some senses, it is really there for the taking now," he admitted. "There has not been a settled back four this season and we have got different calibres of centre-backs who are all trying to get in the team and get partnerships going.
"I am not 6ft 5in tall so, as a defender it suits me, and I prefer to play, alongside a big commanding centre-back. I used to pinch myself because I was playing in the Championship but, now I have been here three to four years, I want to play as many games as possible. This is the club I want to be at, this is where I come from, and it is a good club."
A former pupil at Campsmount School in Norton, Hird was snapped up by Yorkshire rivals Leeds United aged 11 and progressed as far as the Elland Road reserve team before being released.
Looking back, Hird says: "Leeds were in transition, Dennis Wise had just come into the club (as manager) and was letting a lot of the young players go. When I was released I knew it was 'make or break' for my career. Fortunately, I had spoken to the manager at Doncaster and had the fall back of knowing that he was willing to take me here. I knew I had another shot – but I also knew, in my own head that, it was my last chance."
Hird made six appearances on loan for Rovers towards the end of the 2006-07 season and, after signing a permanent deal, was loaned to Grimsby Town. After impressing at Blundell Park, his return to Rovers coincided with the final stages of the club's push for promotion. He got back into the team due to injury and went on to help Rovers win at Wembley, ironically against Leeds in the play-off final.
Nearly three years later, Rovers are now an established Championship club with aspirations of getting to the Premier League.
Manager O'Driscoll was linked with the recent vacancy at Sheffield United but could now be a target for Burnley or Preston North End, who are seeking new managers following the departures of Brian Laws and Darren Ferguson, respectively.
Hird says it will be a 'massive boost' for the club if O'Driscoll stays.
"People were saying he might be leaving us for Sheffield United – and other different clubs have been interested in him over the past year or so. If we lose him, we are going to have to find someone better – and that is going to be very hard.
"It will be a massive boost if he stays," Hird added. "The gaffer has stamped his influence and authority on this club now. He has his own style of coaching and you have to buy into that. If you do, you will be successful. We want to keep that going and we don't want any distractions taking us off course."
With Scunthorpe in the relegation zone, Rovers are looking to secure a victory today that will maintain their push for play-off qualification. The club has never played top-flight football but is closer than ever before.
"A couple of years ago, our position in the league would have been regarded as amazing but we are a solid Championship club now and I think we can look forwards rather than backwards," said Hird. "Blackpool have given everyone inspiration. They showed last season that you don't have to be a 'big money club' to get there. If everything is structured right and you have a good team spirit, you can do whatever you want to do.
"It would be amazing to play at the top level. Everyone wants to be there and so do I. If we keep it going and if we put together a good run of results, we have got as much chance as anyone else this season."
With no undersoil heating at the Keepmoat Stadium, Rovers' scheduled home game with Ipswich Town was postponed on Tuesday due to a frozen pitch. Two days earlier, the game at Derby County also fell victim to the weather and burst waterpipes at the Pride Park stadium.
Those events combined mean that Rovers have not been in action since December 17 when a stoppage-time goal by Brian Stock secured a home win over Middlesbrough.
"It was nice to bounce back with a victory against Middlesbrough, especially after a heavy defeat against Leicester, where everyone could hold their hands up and say we didn't perform as well as we can do," said Hird. "All-in-all, we are pleased with where we are in the table but we want to kick on and try and get in the play-off positions now."
With only 26 miles separating Doncaster and Scunthorpe, today's game is another local derby for Rovers, who also face Yorkshire rivals Barnsley, Leeds, Hull City and Sheffield United in this season's Championship.That will not make any difference to Hird, however. He just wants to play, regardless of the opposition.
The big match: Doncaster Rovers v Scunthorpe United, Championship, today, 3pm